The Antidepressant Diet

The connection between carbohydrates, serotonin, and antidepressant weight gain

Hunger Doesn't Make You Fat

Are we eating too much because we are hungry? The answer is no.

Early in January, we will be bombarded with descriptions of diet plans that promise to banish holiday-generated fat stores and produce quick weight loss without hunger.

The dieter is usually told that plan X will make it possible for the dieter to stay on a calorie restricted food regimen and never feel hungry.  The hunger squashing plan may promote eating fat (e.g. butter, bacon, cheese, mayonnaise) as a way to stop the stomach from emptying quickly so it feels full.  The internet is full of diets touting a newly discovered natural substance extracted from swamp plants or removed from the adrenal glands of a pregnant armadillo. Decisions, decisions....

 Before you sign up for one of these plans, ask yourself whether hunger drives you or anyone else to overeat. Is it hunger that makes us go back for seconds or thirds or more at the endless meals offered on cruise ships or at those 'all you can eat' buffets?  Are we eating from hunger when we race toward the 'sweet table' at the end of an elaborate wedding reception dinner?  Are we starving when we decide to have an ice cream cone or fried dough an hour after finishing a plate of fried clams and French fries during a summer holiday?  If we really stop eating when we are no longer hungry, we probably would never order dessert in a restaurant.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Are we eating too much because we are hungry? The answer is no. We are eating too much because of our appetite is not satisfied. 

 Appetite is what we feel when our emotions, hormones, winter blues, or even use of antidepressants urges us to put food in our mouths.  If you ever found yourself putting food in your mouth when you are:

Exhausted;

Angry;

Frustrated;

Overwhelmed;

Anxious;

Procrastinating;

Bored;

Lonely;

Premenstrual;

Perimenopausal;

Watching the sun set at 3:45pm; or

On antidepressants, mood stabilizers or a host of other medications;

Then you are eating from appetite.

Controlling appetite, not hunger, is the key to successful dieting. The key to this control is serotonin.

 About 35 years ago, scientists discovered that the brain neurotransmitter, serotonin, brought about "meal termination" in laboratory animals (what we would experience as humans as satiety or satisfaction). When serotonin leaves you satiated or satisfied, you simply don't feel like eating anymore.  The turn-off switch to eating is as strong as the turn-off switch to swallowing any more water when you have had enough to drink. There is neither will power needed, nor quick calorie calculation involved. You feel completed.

The power of this serotonin appetite controlling system is so powerful, it can feel sometimes as if you have taken an appetite suppressant drug.  You simply stop eating.

 So how do we achieve this?  By naturally increasing serotonin production in the brain. (It's important to note that while antidepressants help mood, they also seem to increase appetite.)  Boosting this "feel-good" chemical in the brain is easy. Serotonin is always made when the amino acid, tryptophan, gets into the brain. Tryptophan only gets into the brain after carbohydrates (with the exception of fruit) are eaten. As soon as the carbohydrate is digested, changes occur in the blood that allow tryptophan to enter the brain. If the carbohydrate contains very little fat, it will be digested quickly, serotonin will be made, and the appetite- generated urge to eat will vanish.

Don't expect protein to do this. It won't. Protein prevents serotonin from being made.  This is why we want dessert after eating several ounces of protein for dinner. Our hunger is gone, but our appetite makes us yearn for dessert.

Alas, carbohydrates are the bane of many diet plans, and with good reason. If they are forbidden or severely restricted, then the dieter can't indulge in fat-rich ice cream, pie crust, cookies, fried breading on chicken, potato chips, sour-cream drenched potatoes, cheese smothered pasta or cream cheese laden bagels. In other words, removing carbohydrates means eliminating the butter, cheese, and lard that may make up 70 % of the calories in the carbohydrate food. 

But what these diet programs rarely tell the dieter is that removing carbohydrates removes the ability of the brain to turn off eating and turn on satiety. Removing carbohydrates prevents the brain from making serotonin.

There are many fat-free carbohydrates, and these are the carbohydrates that should be eaten to make serotonin.  Low-fat breakfast cereal, e.g. Cheerios, will provide about 30 grams of carbohydrate in ¾ of cup at a caloric cost of about 110 calories and certainly fits into a diet plan. If the cereal, or another appropriate carbohydrate snack is consumed on a relatively empty stomach, the appetite controlling force of serotonin will be activated.

What diet plans also fail to mention is that increasing serotonin by eating carbohydrates has another benefit. You feel good. Serotonin is a mood-booster. This brain chemical won't take away unemployment problems, lonely Sunday afternoons, worry over bills or teenagers, or the mood and sleep changes of perimenopause.  But it will make you feel calm, less grumpy, more energetic, more focused, and better able to cope with your problems.

So if eating a baked potato without butter or sour cream or munching on a cup of frosted flakes improves your mood and shuts off your appetite, what's to lose? Only your weight.

Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., is the co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet and the founder of a Harvard University hospital weight-loss facility.

more...

Subscribe to The Antidepressant Diet

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?