Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood and behaviour. When serotonin levels become low, depression and food cravings can set in. Authors Judith Wurthman, Ph.D., and Dr. Nina Frusztajer, challenge the wisdom of low-carb dieting in their book "The Serotonin Power Diet". The diet consists of reduced calorie, low-fat meals and snacks, and provides a variety of vegetables and lean proteins alongside processed cereals and grains.
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During the first phase of the diet, meant to boost serotonin levels, dieters eat three meals and three snacks a day. For breakfast, the menu would include a combination of protein and carbohydrate, such as a crumpet with an egg and a bowl of melon. Dieters are advised to limit protein to a 28 g serving during this meal. Lunch might be a chef salad, and dinner could consist of spaghetti with a green salad, as the evening meal is the highest in carbohydrates. Dieters are required to eat one fruit each day. Dieters can have a small snack -- rice cakes or dry cereal, perhaps -- an hour before lunch, and a similar high-carb snack three hours after lunch. Phase One includes an evening snack as well. Although you don't count calories on "The Serotonin Power Diet", dieters choose from a list of foods that provides portion sizes. This phase lasts two weeks.
During Phase Two of "The Serotonin Power Diet", dieters eliminate the evening snack and replace some of the carbohydrates at dinnertime with protein. The authors note that if you have a difficult time sticking to this phase of the diet, you should return to Phase One for a day or two until cravings are manageable. During this phase, dieters increase the amount of protein at breakfast to a 85 g serving. A typical dinner for this phase is couscous with lamb and mangetout. This phase last four weeks.
The final phase of the diet, intended to control serotonin levels, only differs from the second phase in that the before-lunch snack is eliminated. Otherwise, dieters eat the same amount of low-fat protein and carbohydrates. This is a four-week phase, although if the dieter has not reached the weight-loss goal, he can continue it indefinitely. Those who have met their goal can continue to the maintenance phase, which includes careful monitoring of weight, exercise and eating habits.
How it is said to work
According to Wurtman and Frusztajer, the brain produces serotonin more efficiently when you consume refined carbohydrates. This is due to chemical changes that take place in the body after eating carbohydrates via insulin release and increasing the ratio of tryptophan, a serotonin precursor, in blood plasma, notes Wurtman in an article published in the 1995 "Obesity Research". Other scientists agree. Researcher Svend Møller, in an article published in "Pharmacology and Toxicology", notes that depressed patients often self-medicate with carbohydrates, as the carbohydrates increase tryptophan relative to other amino acids, resulting in increased serotonin synthesis. People who eat diets higher in protein consume competing amino acids that prevent tryptophan from crossing the blood-brain barrier.
While it is apparent that carbohydrates can have a positive impact on serotonin levels, note that sugary cereals, rice cakes and pasta are regular components of this diet. However, refined carbohydrates can lead to health problems such as Type 2 diabetes and obesity. If you have difficulty controlling your blood sugar, you may find that this diet triggers episodes of high blood sugar or cravings. If this is the case, you might consume complex carbs such as sweet potatoes, brown rice and shredded wheat in place of the refined carbohydrates. Although the authors of "The Serotonin Power Diet" indicate that carb-rich meals and snacks will curb cravings, research does not bear this out. According to an article published in the October 2004 "Journal of the American College of Nutrition", there is "convincing evidence that a higher protein intake increases thermogenesis and satiety compared to diets of lower protein content".
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- "The Serotonin Power Diet"; Judith Wurtman, Ph.D. and Nina Frusztajer, MD; 2006
- Harvard School of Public Health: Carbohydrates
- "Journal of the American College of Nutrition"; The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss -- A critical review; Thomas Halton, et al.: October 2004
- "Obesity Research"; Brain serotonin, carbohydrate-craving, obesity and depression; Wurtman, et al.; November 1995
- "Pharmacology and Toxicology"; Serotonin, carbohydrates, and atypical depression; Svend Møller; March 2009
- Middle Tennessee State University: Food, mood and neurotransmitters