It’s been a few years since we opened the news to the headline “Atkins diet may cause emotional ‘zombies'”. Dr. Judith Wurtman and her colleagues, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) clinical research center, found that when you stop eating carbohydrates, your brain stops regulating serotonin. The brain needs complex carbohydrates to manufacture serotonin and when the brain manufactures enough serotonin, it improves mood and helps regulate appetite. Could what we eat cause or increase depression? Could our serotonin levels affect our weight loss? According to several new diet books, we can regulate our moods and lose weight simply by adjusting our diets. These new diet books seek to turn our dietary habits around and turn our serotonin levels up. We read two of these books, The Feel-Good Diet and The Serotonin Power Diet. While both of these books tell us that our food choices can affect our moods as well as our weight, they take radically different approaches to correcting the problem. One we liked, one we didn’t.
The Feel Good Diet
The Feel Good Diet was written by Cheryl Hart M.D, and Mary Kay Grossman, R.D. The authors claim most people quit diets because they deplete the brain’s neurotransmitters, resulting in the low energy, moodiness, and cravings that sabotage weight-loss success. They call it yo-yo brain, a hormone imbalance that affects women most severely. They explain that we eat too much protein, and not enough essential carbs. The Feel Good Diet book includes a diet, exercise, and supplement program designed to increase serotonin and improve insulin resistance. There is a large focus on insulin resistance throughout the book, and it’s almost assumed that we all are insulin resistant. By following their diet, we can expect to turn up our energy, turn off our hunger, and ‘yo-yo’ no more. What’s involved?
The diet first encourages food combining, by specific combinations of high insulin spiking foods with low insulin spiking foods. Insulin neutral foods can be eaten in unlimited amounts. You’ll need to carry the book like a handbook to keep track of what goes with what. The diet also requires drinking a vinegar water solution before meals, intended to correct our pH levels. We’re not sure we like that advice because it conjures up images of fad diets and bogus products. Some experts believe that any change to your pH is very minor and insignificant, and in order to make a difference, you’d have to drink very large amounts of vinegar which would make you ill. The authors also suggest you take various supplements including CraniYums, a 5-HTP supplement which they market.
The Feel Good Diet offers 3 calorie controlled plans. The difference between the plans is how many low-insulin spiking foods you eat at each meal. The book includes a 2 week menu plan, which may be necessary since the plan is so complicated.
Sample menu from Plan A
Hi = one serving of high insulin spiking food
Lo = one serving of low insulin spiking food
Hi Lo Lo
1 serving vinegar water
1 slice toast
1 teaspoon healthy margarine
1 cup light cranberry juice cocktail
Hi Lo Lo
1 serving vinegar water
1 Tuna Melt
1 serving Tomato Bisque
7 Baked Lay’s Potato Crisps
Hi Lo Lo
1 serving vinegar water
1 Chicken or Beef Fajita
Fat free sour cream
1/3 cup mandarin orange sections in sugar free gelatin
The diet plan does recommend exercise to boost metabolism and increase serotonin production. However, they seem overly cautious about “over-exercising” and spend several pages explaining that we do not burn calories if we exercise longer than 40 minutes, or if our heart rates exceed a certain amount. They recommend gardening, golfing, and walking for maximum fat burning, relying on the questionable idea that there is a fat-burning zone at lower levels. Their recommendations include 30 minutes of low intensity walking every day; weight training 3 times per week, for 20 to 30 minutes; cardio on the days you are not weight training.
Overall, we found the Feel Good Diet to be complicated and gimmicky. We moved on to the next book.
The Serotonin Power Diet
The Serotonin Power Diet book was written by Dr. Judith Wurtman, the doctor responsible for the study on carbs and depression that we mentioned in the first paragraph. The book was co-written with Nina Frusztajer Marquis, MD, a physician with expertise in wellness and the co-founder of Adara Weight Management. The diet in this book is the same as used in their weight loss center. The recommendations in this book are very different than suggested in the Feel Good Diet, and seem easier to follow.
There are three stages to this 12 week diet plan: the Serotonin Surge, Serotonin Balance, and Serotonin Control. The only differences between them are when you are allowed to snack on sweet and starchy carbs. Also, the first phase does not include protein with dinner. Why does this matter? The brain makes serotonin only after a person consumes sweet or starchy carbohydrates. Including even a small amount of protein can prevent this. The menu allows for timed surges of serotonin by eating carbs without protein at certain times of the day. Other than the need to combine carbs with protein only at certain meals, you will not find any other suggestions for food combining. You will not be required to select specific, complicated food combinations as suggested in the Feel Good Diet. You will also not be asked to drink vinegar or take a series of supplements. However, they do market a shake mix called Serotrim that contains simple and complex carbs which can be used as snacks if desired. Luckily, the book provides plenty of suggestions for snacks without purchasing special foods.
There are only two calorie controlled plans in the book – a 1400 calorie plan for women and an 1800 calorie plan for men.
Sample menu for the first phase:
Fat free or low fat ricotta cheese
fresh or frozen blueberries
toaster corn cake
1 teaspoon whole fruit jam
1 3/4 cups Multigrain Cheerios
steamed fresh or frozen broccoli
21 Caramel Corn Quaker Quakes rice snacks
Pad Thai Salad (recipe in book)
steamed mixed vegetables
1 cup fat free instant hot chocolate with 2 marshmallows
1 cup herbal tea with 2 teaspoons honey and 1 fat free fig newton.
Fitness is very important to the Serotonin Diet. Each week will include 4 sessions of aerobic activity in the fat burning zone which last a minimum of 30 minutes each. You will also include 3 sessions of strength training that also last a minimum of 30 minutes each. There is a considerable amount of information to explain how exercise will change your body and your mind. The tone is positive and encouraging.
We felt that the Serotonin Power Diet is easy to follow, offers balanced nutrition, and should be easy to stick to. You’ll lose weight, and hopefully you’ll feel better, too.