Can Carbs make you happy and lose weight? An interview with Dr. Judith Wurtman

Photo / Donna Coveney

Dr. Wurtman, from my research I see that you’ve had a long and distinguished career.  Have you always been interested in diet and serotonin related research, or did you have other medical interests before this?

My husband discovered that carbohydrate consumption resulted in the synthesis of serotonin because insulin secretion following carbohydrate intake allowed tryptophan to enter the brain . Tryptophan is the amino acid from which serotonin is made. This meant that whether serotonin was made or not depended on what one ate. I wondered if in some people who claimed to crave carbohydrates, the regulation of serotonin synthesis by eating carbohydrates might be abnormal. Might serotonin be involved in the overeating of carbohydrates?

I won’t bore you with the details of our research but we found, in collaboration with two psychologists, Harris Lieberman and Bonnie Spring that some people eat carbohydrates as an edible tranquilizer to improve their mood. They tend to do this late afternoons or early evening. Changes in their mood were measured on standard psychological tests and did not occur when they ate protein. The positive mood changes were linked to serotonin, made after they ate carbohydrates. The problem with these ‘mood-food ‘eaters is that they ate carbohydrate food loaded with fat and they ate much more than they needed to eat to make serotonin. So many gain weight when they eat this way.

At what point in your career did you begin to focus on carbohydrates and serotonin? 

We wondered if other groups whose eating was driven by emotion as in women with PMS or people with SAD might also be eating carbohydrates to increase serotonin and improve their mood. We did extensive research with these populations and found that the answer was yes.

It was refreshing to read more of the articles that you have written as carbs seem to be villainized constantly in the media.  Do you find people do not take your work seriously because of this? There are some people who do not understand or even know about the connection between serotonin and carbohydrates. If they did , they would not suggest diets that might decrease serotonin and jeopardize people’s mood.

There are some people who do not understand or even know about the connection between serotonin and carbohydrates. If they did , they would not suggest diets that might decrease serotonin and jeopardize people’s mood.

From your website, and in your recent book “The Serotonin Power Diet” you tout eating small amounts of carbs prior to a meal to curb one’s appetite.  It does make sense, I just never thought of it before.  Have others conducted similar research?  Or is this a new concept?

Serotonin has been known to Increase satiety for about 40 years. But I developed the idea of eating small amounts of carbohydrate before meals to help the dieter mange portion control.

In the article “How much vigorous exercise will prevent you from dying” I found it to be very interesting that one could achieve enough exercise in one weekend rather than the entire week.  Have there been other articles or studies related to this? 

The research is fairly new but now widely accepted.

Have other academics disputed this article and adhere to the idea that the exercise must be spread out evenly over the week (30 minutes a day for example?)

The problem is defining vigorous exercise. What is vigorous among exercise physiologists may seem unattainable to the unfit person and many of us overestimate how strenuous our physical activity is.

Have you researched other diets and have you compared how they can affect depression?  I’ve been reading things recently about the advantages of a ketogenic diet which all but eliminates carbs, what is your opinion on that?

I have done research and written a great deal on the weight gain that follows the use of antidepressants and related drugs. Not enough attention has been given to this very serious problem. Any diet that decreases serotonin has been shown to increase anxiety, depression and even altruistic behavior among people who volunteer for such studies. Some of the most vicious warriors in history like Attila the Hun and Vlad the Impaler followed ketogenic diets.

Finally, what words of advice would you have for young people who are struggling with weight loss and depression?

See a psychiatrist.

For more on Dr. Wurtman, please check out the following links:

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