"Let's Eat Out Tonight"
Inns providing food along with a place to curl up for the night have undoubtedly existed for as long as people have been traveling in large enough numbers to justify the effort. Establishments where people go for better or fancier food than they eat at home, however, or even just for gastronomic variety, are a more recent phenomenon. Some historians trace the rise of the modern restaurant to the French Revolution, when cooks from households of the nobility suddenly found themselves out of a job. The now-normative two-career family has undoubtedly given restaurants a further boost by adding the elements of time and convenience to the equation.
Whether it’s a family outing, date night for the parents, part of a courtship ritual, a chance to get together with friends, or just a quick bite on the go, three quarters of Americans now eat out at least once a week. Thus, restaurants are part of our regular nutritional landscape, not just an occasional splurge.
For quitters trying to control postcessation weight gain in the context of an increase in appetite, restaurants present a special challenge. Although you don’t have to eat in a restaurant to encounter large portion sizes, it definitely helps. According to one study, the average size of a hamburger is nearly 25% larger than in was 1977, and soft drinks 50% larger. Studies have repeatedly shown that people eat more when confronted with larger portions. And to make matters worse, your meal may be even more calorie-dense than it looks: For example, a portion of Spaghetti & Meatballs at Macaroni Grill contains a whopping 2,270 calories, 56 grams of saturated fat, and 5,330 mg of sodium.
Eating more than you want, need, or intend to eat is not value for money. Here are a few little tricks that can help you keep your favorite restaurant from supersizing you:
And finally, support legislation mandating nutrition information on the menu. Knowing what you’re facing can help you make wise choices and leave the restaurant feeling as good about your meal as when you entered.
The Skinny on Thin
A group of researchers at Brigham Young University recently reported on a study in which they exposed groups of men and women to pictures of obese same-sex individuals wearing swimsuits, and then instructed to imagine someone saying “your body looks like hers/his.” Participants were selected for being slim and having no history of eating disorders. Imaging techniques were used to gauge activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain location involved in self-reflection. In the women, the medial prefrontal cortex “lit up,” presumably indicating anxious comparisons with their own bodies. No comparable activity was observed in the men.
Cute little study, catchy enough to attract the attention of Newsweek. But what struck me most forcefully was less the findings of the study itself than a remark by one of the authors, who was quoted in Newsweek as saying that recruitment was a challenge because it was “hard to find women who were really thin but had no history of an eating disorder.”
As I observe in Chapter 3 of Life After Cigarettes: “The sad truth is that, except for exceptionally tall and large-boned women, the calorie quota required to maintain a healthy [and officially “normal”] weight is rather low and discouragingly easy to meet.” (Men – with their faster metabolism and larger body size – have a lot more latitude.)
There are numerous formulas for calculating how many calories are needed to maintain or reduce body weight, depending on sex, height, weight, age, amount of exercise, and sometimes additional variables, but for women the results typically fall in the range of 1,600 to 1,400 or even 1,200 calories per day. (Most experts would not recommend long-term restriction to less than 1,200 calories whatever the formulas may say.) Hardly a starvation diet, but it doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for snack attacks and dietary indulgences.
This can be tough for any woman, but especially the quitting smoker, who finds her appetite increasing at the same time as her caloric needs are decreasing. Fortunately, even small changes can make a big difference over time. Avoiding the twin hazards of perpetual hunger and perpetual body dissatisfaction shouldn’t call for heroics, but it will probably require tweaking along several dimensions – a little less food, a little more exercise, a little attitude adjustment (by which I mean recalibrating your idea of how much you should weigh by, say, 5-10 pounds, an amount that is within the grasp of most), and perhaps a few fashion tricks to keep you looking your most svelte. (These strategies are discussed in greater detail in Chapters 3-5 of Life After Cigarettes, as well as elsewhere in this blog.) And for good measure, throw in enough “media literacy” to recognize that we’re all being sold a feminine ideal rarely seen in nature.
Mother’s Day Musings
Today is Mother’s Day, the day we set aside to think about and honor our mothers, and to let them know how much we appreciate their love and devotion. Two days from now, May 11, marks the 45th anniversary of my own mother’s death. I miss her still. I regard it as one of the tragedies of my life that just on the verge of forming an adult relationship with my mother, I lost the opportunity forever. I thought I’d take this occasion to share some personal reflections on this experience.
My mother died of a stroke at the age of 52. She had been ill for a couple of years – of heart failure, we now know – but not in our wildest nightmares did we imagine she was dying.
It was a devastating blow to my family. Two of my three siblings were still living at home, and my father (a great father but, like most men of his generation, not such a good mother) was at a loss as to how to cope with his new situation. My 16-year-old sister, overwhelmed by grief, sprinted through what remained of her high school career, graduating a semester early to evade my father’s efforts to burden her with running the household. My 11-year-old brother was unceremoniously packed off to a boarding school where he was lonely and miserable. My 20-year-old sister and I must have been lonely and miserable, too, because we both married within a few months; my marriage lasted but hers didn’t. My profound feeling of vulnerability (how could it be so easy to die?) led to a bad case of hypochondria that persisted for several years.
Our family had lost its compass. Overnight, we were transformed from a close, happy family into a seriously dysfunctional one. All my mother’s children, in one way or another, have carried the scars of her loss into our adulthood.
My mother was not a smoker, but any woman who smokes greatly elevates her risk of sharing my mother’s fate and dying prematurely. Half of all smokers die of a smoking-related disease, many of them in middle-age. Female smokers, on average, lose more than 14 precious years of life.
Female smokers are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women who have never smoked. Smoking is also associated with cerebrovascular disease, especially in young age groups – a risk that is greatly elevated in oral contraceptive users. Almost all lung cancer is caused by smoking, and lung cancer (not breast cancer, as many would guess) is the biggest cancer killer of women.
One woman in five still smokes. The fact that that woman is a mom surrounded by people who love and depend on her, who think she’s the most important person in the world, won’t protect her if she keeps on smoking. Quitting at any age, on the other hand, produces huge health benefits. Honor your mother, love your kids, and help yourself to a long and healthy life by resolving to quit today.
Smoke-Free Michigan – Everybody Wins
Today – May 1, 2010 – my home state of Michigan becomes smoke-free, joining 38 other states that have already enacted some version of this policy.* Fittingly, the new measure is named for the late Dr. Ron Davis, a tireless supporter of this legislation and a friend to all who care about the public health. Rest in peace, Ron. For me, as for most nonsmokers, this change is cause to celebrate. Starting today, the wait staff of my favorite pizza parlor can go to work every day without being exposed to environmental tobacco smoke as an unavoidable condition of employment. Starting today, I can bring my grandchildren in for a grilled cheese sandwich without worrying about the short- and long-term health effects of just breathing the air around them.
But nonsmokers aren’t the only ones with reason to cheer. If you’re a smoker who’s trying to quit, the new law is your friend. By breaking up the strong association between smoking and alcohol consumption, it ensures that just being in a bar will no longer be a potent cue for smoking. It’s an especially happy development for “weekend smokers” (mostly women) who rarely smoke except in bars, and who now are less likely to progress to regular smoking as a result of intermittent exposure to nicotine. Likewise, recent quitters, their resolve softened by alcohol, will be less likely to be seduced into relapse by seeing others light up and smelling cigarette smoke.
Although confirmed smokers may be less enthusiastic, they, too, stand to benefit from this ban. If you’re a smoker who likes to gather with friends at Happy Hour or drop in for a nightcap but dreads braving the elements just to satisfy the need for nicotine, here is yet another good reason to stop smoking and start living.
Interestingly, even in the context of Michigan’s tattered economy, the above-mentioned pizza parlor has recently undergone remodeling, including installation of a beautiful new polished hardwood bar, and seriously upgraded its menu. Could it be because the place can no longer get away with being just the smoker’s last remaining refuge? Whatever, a good thing just got better.
* In this post I’ve chosen to focus on bars and restaurants, the biggie for most of us, but note that Michigan’s new law, with a few exemptions, prohibits smoking in all enclosed, indoor workplaces.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.