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Comfort Foods: Must You Stop Eating Them to Lose Weight?

Many people eat to feel alleviation from distress and upset.

Key points

  • When planning a diet, it is important to consider the relationship between eating carbohydrates and the manufacture of the chemical serotonin.
  • Very little carbohydrate needs to be eaten to activate the process of making serotonin.
  • For many people, carbohydrates can be considered a ready-made, no-side-effect source of comfort.

After my friend, I will call her Linda, agreed to be our guest for dinner, she called and asked what I was serving. Surprised to be asked (would she not come if she didn’t like the menu?), I told her and she, satisfied, said she was looking forward to the meal.

Later she explained that when she saw her physician for her yearly check-up, he told her to go on a diet to lose the weight she had gained the previous year. Reviewing the foods she normally ate, he eliminated many of them rather than reducing the amount or frequency with which they could be consumed. "Don’t eat complex carbohydrates," he told her. No eating bread, pasta, cereal, rice, or white potatoes, was the advice. She could eat sweet potatoes, even though they are as complex as white spuds.

Presumably, he expected her to avoid all simple, non-complex carbohydrates such as sugar, as well, but did not mention various sweeteners like sucrose, honey, and maple syrup, or foods like ice cream that contained non-complex carbohydrates.

"I am not sure I can follow his advice for very long," Linda admitted. "Carbohydrates are my Prozac." She went on to tell me that during the past year, one filled with family and financial stresses, she turned to munching on breakfast cereal as a way of relaxing herself enough so she could sleep.

"I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t use recreational drugs, and I am not on antidepressants or tranquilizers," she told me. "But I admit that I was eating a big bowl of sweet breakfast cereal about an hour before going to bed. It helped me relax enough to fall asleep."

A few weeks later, she called me to say that she was abandoning the diet. Suddenly the stress in her already-stressful life increased because of a tax problem suddenly detected, and there was a raccoon in her attic who was destroying the insulation. "Now I don’t know what to eat!" she admitted. "I am willing to give up breakfast cereal, but what can I eat to feel less distressed? It is hard for me to relax ... meditation, walking, and keeping a journal are not helping as much as my nightly bowl of oatmeal squares."

Did her physician realize that removing starchy carbohydrates from Linda’s diet would remove a source of comfort, a means of decreasing her worry and stress? Probably not. He assumed without much evidence that my friend’s consumption of excess calories came primarily from complex carbohydrates. He never asked her why she was eating cereal at night, and to be fair, she didn’t really share that aspect of her daily food intake. He probably also read the unsubstantiated claims that weight loss is best achieved when carbohydrates are decreased or removed from the diet. Given how busy he is, it is doubtful that he even knew of current studies showing that weight loss is no better or worse on a very low carbohydrate diet than on a diet containing moderate amounts of starchy vegetables like potatoes, and grains such as cereal and bread.

But what he didn’t take into account when planning Linda’s diet was the relationship between eating carbohydrates and the manufacture of the chemical, serotonin, in our brain that relieves depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, and agitation. When simple (sucrose) or complex (starchy foods) carbohydrates are eaten and digested, the amino acid tryptophan enters the brain and is immediately converted to serotonin. And serotonin in turn increases the "feel-good, take an edge off of stress" feelings that we crave when facing an unrelenting series of minor or major catastrophes. Eating protein prevents serotonin from being made, and eating carbohydrates that are also high in fat (e.g., doughnuts, cookies) slows digestion, and thus slows tryptophan’s entrance into the brain.

Removing carbohydrates from Linda’s diet meant that she could no longer benefit from an increase in serotonin to help her stress. It was, in some respect, like telling someone to stop taking a painkiller like Tylenol for headaches, and yet not offering an alternative way of dealing with the pain. Linda’s problems kept occurring, but by not allowing her to eat her cereal, she had no way of diminishing the acuity of the stress. Her source of comfort was gone, and there was nothing to take its place when she needed to feel calm at night.

Of course, Linda had been eating too many calories and by her own admission, was spending more time on the phone and her computer than walking her dog, or doing any other kind of exercise. She was unaware of how much she was eating and when busy, she skipped meals and tended to snack. She needed a food plan that would allow her to lose weight slowly but consistently, and she needed to be encouraged to exercise as well. But the diet plan did not have to arbitrarily omit complex carbohydrates, nor did it have to prevent her from having her pre-bedtime comfort snack in order for her to lose weight.

Very little carbohydrate needs to be eaten to activate the process of making serotonin; just about 130 calories of a low-fat carbohydrate like Linda’s favorite Oat Squares triggers the creation of tryptophan. Linda was eating too much; she munched on over two cups every night. She needed to eat only about 25-30 grams (3/4 of a cup of the cereal) to make enough serotonin to relax her to sleep. Were she allowed to eat starchy carbohydrates like a baked potato and salad at dinner with little or no protein, she could have increased her serotonin earlier in the evening. In addition to the positive mood change, Linda would have felt full and satisfied with her rather small dinner, because increased serotonin leads to satiety and satisfaction after eating.

We humans are fortunate to have a ready-made, no-side-effect method of comforting ourselves: carbohydrates. They contain the same number of calories as protein. They are easily digested, inexpensive, readily available, and if consumed in the proper amount, will allow the dieter to lose weight and stress at the same time.