The Antidepressant Diet

The connection between carbohydrates, serotonin, and antidepressant weight gain

I Am An Emotional Overeater

There is not yet an App for that!

Given the number of Apps for IOS (Apple devices), and smartphones, for the number of apps that monitor every morsel of food put into one’s mouth, everyone who owns a cell phone should be skinny. Although there is no device, yet, that will sit on your fork or perch on your forehead to take pictures on the food as it enters your mouth, no doubt it will be coming soon. Perhaps Google eyeglasses already do this, along with an early warning system to limit excessive calorie intake.

Most electronic food record instruments track daily intake for all nutrients, good and bad (vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein sugar, fat, salt, alcohol) as well as calories using immense databases that manage to cover foods with multiple ingredients, along with standard foods like oranges and milk. If you are about to develop scurvy from lack of vitamin C, or weak bones because you are avoiding dairy products and kale (rich in calcium), your inadequate nutrient intake should show up in these food records. And if you are unaware that a slice of pizza has more calories than a bowl of plain lettuce, the App will tell you this along with the calories you just ate when you finished the last slice of pizza in the box.

There is no dispute that keeping food records, be it by paper and pencil or electronically, will have a positive effect on weight loss. Many people don’t know how many calories they are eating, nor what foods consistently contribute too many calories. Identifying those foods and avoiding them—i.e. no more blue cheese dressing by the ladle from the salad bar, no more sausage with the eggs for breakfast, a baked potato rather than French fries—might at the very least slow down weight gain, and indeed help weight loss. Moreover, these devices with their thousands of entries help the dieter decide whether she can substitute string beans for broccoli, or low-fat ricotta cheese for cottage cheese, without altering calorie intake. By tracking calorie intake throughout the day, the dieter will know by dinner time whether he has some extra calories for a glass or two of wine with dinner or should instead sup on alfalfa sprouts and water.

Most of these devices can also act as an online “nag,” getting you to take a walk instead of lying on the couch or spending more time on the treadmill. You will be congratulated or gently scolded for your participation, or not, in an exercise routine and, as your weight diminishes, at least your App will notice, even if no one else does.

So why isn’t everyone who owns a phone thin? It couldn’t be the cost of the Apps; they are certainly cheaper than going to an “All You Can Eat Buffet” every day for lunch. One obvious reason is that there is no point to keeping track of your eating and exercise if you have no intention or desire to lose weight.

Besides, the information may be depressing. Do I really want to know how many calories I just ate in that bucket of fried chicken, or at the sweet table featured at my cousin’s wedding? Some of us would say taking a picture of the desserts on my plate, or obtaining the calories from the bucket of fried chicken, might keep me from eating these foods. But if I have every intention of eating these foods, I doubt I will stop and check out their calorie content before digging in.

But I propose a more universal reason is the futility of keeping track of eating when eating is out of control. I think back to a story told to me by a friend years ago when she was dating a jerk (her term). After each date, she would polish off a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream followed by a bag of Oreos. When her clothes became too tight to wear, she broke off the relationship and lost weight. Might an App have prevented her from eating an entire pint of ice cream and a few dozen cookies? Maybe—but only if there was an App for toxic boyfriends. My friend knew exactly what she was going to do when she walked into the kitchen after her date. The ice cream and cookies did not materialize in her kitchen. She bought them because she planned on eating them.

Sometimes the urge to overeat feels like a brain seizure. The hurt, despair, anger, or tension is so intense that we race toward food like someone dying of thirst races toward water. We eat because the food can quickly soothe or numb us. The mistake my friend made, in addition to her relationship, was picking the wrong kinds of food to calm her down. Had she eaten carbohydrate foods like cornflakes or pretzels that were low in fat, digestion would have occurred quickly, serotonin would have been produced and she would have felt better within a few minutes. By eating high-fat ice cream and high-fat cookies, she had to wait more than 30 minutes, perhaps even an hour, until she felt calmer. And, of course, she continued eating until she felt comforted.

What we really need are Apps that tell us what to do when we cannot control what we eat.

The App should list the foods that will calm and halt binging. The App should suggest additional strategies to make us focused and feel reasonable and optimistic that we can deal with whatever is sticking emotional pins in us. The App should point out recurring triggers to our emotional eating outbreaks (like dating a jerk). And finally the App could gently mention going to back to recording what we are eating once we return to our rational, reasonable selves.

 

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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