The Antidepressant Diet

The connection between carbohydrates, serotonin, and antidepressant weight gain

Eating as Recreation: Preventing the Inevitable Weight Gain

We All Do It & We All Regret It Afterwards

How many calories does it take to watch a football game on television? Does it take more when the game is the Super Bowl? Do these football game nights so drain the body of calories that the television viewer might starve to death unless fed constantly during the show? Take away the beer and franks and is a baseball game as interesting? Would the tennis matches at Wimbledon be as enticing if played without strawberries and cream being consumed by the spectators? In short, is calorie intake an essential part of watching a sport and if so, is it one of the reasons the war against obesity is being lost?

Eating seems to be the go-to activity that fills up our so-called recreational or relaxation time. It is such an essential part of our life style that it seems rude and inattentive to have friends or family over to our home and not feed them,  or to meet someone for conversation without including a meal, snack or at least coffee and a pastry. Recently I received a flyer announcing a lecture series given by a local academic and tucked into the corner of the paper was a notice that refreshments would be served immediately following the talk. It is hard to think of any activity devoid of the opportunity to eat, although I suppose bungee jumping and deep-sea diving would qualify.

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Anyone attempting to maintain weight loss or prevent weight gain faces the problem of almost endless opportunities to eat at recreational events. It requires enormous will power stamina to crunch on ice cubes rather than Buffalo wings, or nurse a diet soft drink rather than a beer. And despite the many electronic devices willing to record the number of chips or wings consumed so you know at the end of a game how many calories you just consumed, it is unlikely that someone will punch in those numbers after each wing or chip is eaten.

However, a graver threat to weight maintenance is eating as recreation.  Nothing to do on a cold dark Sunday afternoon? Go to the refrigerator or pantry and find something to munch. Bored with commercial breaks that are longer than the television program segments? Wander off to the kitchen to find something to eat.  Dreading a three-day holiday weekend stuck in the house with young children while a spouse is off on a business trip? Go to the supermarket beforehand and stock up on cookies and ice cream as a reward and diversion from playing endless rounds of Candy Land.  Working hours on a report, legal brief, research material, tax returns? Leave the computer or desk for a few minutes and relax with some nibbles.

The act of eating can be recreational; it allows us to stop whatever we are doing and relax our mind and even our emotions. Smoking does the same thing but unfortunately its side effects such as chronic sickness and/or death make it a much less desirable avenue of escape from work, boredom or loneliness.

Weight-loss programs recognize the danger of recreational eating and attempt to teach the dieter to choose non-caloric forms of entertainment and diversion: go for a walk, volunteer, learn to play an instrument that uses your fingers and your lips, or get a pedicure.  Given the high percent of people who regain weight after these programs, one might suspect that these suggestions, regardless of their worthiness, are not being followed. Moreover, eating, especially eating at home, trumps many other forms of recreation by being immediately accessible, cheap (the food is already paid for) and requiring little equipment other than a fork, possibly a microwave, and napkins.

Perhaps this is the time to consider a radical approach to this problem. To paraphrase the alleged words of Marie Antoinette, "Let them (the dieters) eat cake." Well, not cake exactly but a low-fat, portion-controlled carbohydrate. Rather than saying "No, you can't eat when you are bored, or lonely or want to take a break," dieters should be informed about "take a break" foods that can be eaten without impairing their weight loss.  

Popcorn, pretzels, breadsticks, low-fat ice cream, rice crackers and sweet breakfast cereal are inexpensive, ready-to-eat, good tasting, easy-to-store snacks that can fit into any diet or weight maintenance program. Their virtues extend far beyond their crunchiness and ability to produce a tasty diversion from work or tedium. These, and similar low or fat-free carbohydrate foods, will improve energy, good mood, and focus within 20 to 30 minutes after being consumed. And, unlike Buffalo wings or nuts or even fruit, they will shut off the need for further eating for at least a couple of hours. The reason is deceptively simple. 

A brain chemical, serotonin, is made after an ounce of carbs like pretzels or rice crackers or Frosted Flakes are eaten. Serotonin liberates us from boredom, fatigue, irritability, restlessness and distractibility. Sweet and starchy carbohydrates are the only food to bring this about; fruits don't and protein foods actually prevent serotonin from being made. Alcoholic beverages do not make serotonin and neither do nuts, as they contain equal amounts of carbs and protein.

Even better, recreational carbs need to be eaten in only small amounts to bring about this effect. About 120 to 130 calories containing 30 grams or so of carbohydrate is sufficient. Diets should be able to accommodate that number of calories, as we have shown in our book, The Serotonin Power Diet. But these recreational snacks do come with a warning. Overdosing; i.e. continuing to eat beyond the therapeutic portion, will add only calories, not good mood and diversion. Even serotonin won't be able to speed up your report, make your kids stop whining, or get your team to win the game. Eating the recommended carbohydrates, however, will give you the relaxation you crave without the penalty of added pounds—and perhaps you still might consider learning how to play the trumpet.   

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

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