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Diet and mood

The Straw That Broke Cranky’s Back

Are you feeling out of sorts? Down right cranky? In the mood to push people out of the way and spit nails? It could be that diet you’re on.

But not just any diet. According to a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), eating a high-fat diet (in other words: Atkins) “will make you an emotional zombie.” And of course, the British tabloid The Mirror couldn’t resist spinning that quote into this headline: “Atkins Zombies: Diet Sparks Depression.”

Barking and biting

First, let’s be honest, dieting makes most of us cranky. When someone tells me they’ve just stared a new diet, I give them a wide berth because I’ve never known anyone who was on a diet and wasn’t at least a little cranky, especially during the first few days.

That crankiness is the brain reacting to the sudden lack of fuel. Deprived of its usual foods, levels of serotonin and beta-endorphin (chemicals in the brain that regulate feelings of happiness and well-being) quickly begin to drop. The result: fatigue, depression and crankiness. This is the brain crying, “Feed me now!”

(As a side note: Guess who tend to be even crankier on diets? Women. Apparently female brains produce less serotonin than men, so crankiness goes way up when the food intake drops. Men, for your own safety I advise no wisecracks, please.)

Potato fix

But back to this study. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently conducted a study in which serotonin levels were measured in 100 subjects, while half the group ate high protein foods and the other half ate foods that were almost exclusively carbohydrates. The high carb group had higher serotonin levels and were described as “more relaxed.”

The lead researcher – Dr. Judith Wurtman – told The Mirror that, “If you eat a potato when you feel grumpy, you will feel better in 30 to 40 minutes.”

Sure, that’s perfect if your goal is to have a sweet disposition for an hour or so. But as a dietary guideline, the potato-for-grumpiness trade-off is a perfect way to GAIN weight. A potato is a very high glycemic food that creates a sugar spike, just as a candy bar would. It’s like getting a sugar fix. So you might relieve grumpiness for the moment, but it’s just one part of a cycle that constantly calls for more sugar for grumpiness relief. If you constantly feed that cycle, you’re certain to gain weight and set the stage for type 2 diabetes in the process. But, if you stop feeding that cycle, you’ll eventually break it, the crankiness will subside and your body will be less likely to cry for carbs. when you’re cranky.

The flip side

According to an MIT press release, Dr. Wurtman’s husband – Richard Wurtman – is the MIT clinical research director and the one who discovered that carbs prompt the brain to produce serotonin, but only if very little or no protein is eaten.

BBC News shared an Atkins response to the MIT study. Dr. Stuart Trager is the chairman of Atkins Physician Council, and whenever a new attack on the Atkins plan appears, he’s the one who prepares a response. The poor man must put in an 80-hour week just fielding all of these ludicrous attacks.

In the BBC article, Dr. Trager cites a study that shows how the control of carbohydrate intake helped more than half the study subjects improve mood. Other points made by Dr. Trager:

  • Moods are governed by a complex brain chemistry that involves more than just serotonin levels alone
  • Bringing carbohydrate cravings under control (as opposed to simply satisfying them) helps people stabilize blood sugar and lose weight

Adding to Dr. Trager’s comments – and slamming the door on the concept of carbo-loading to improve mood – Dr. Brigid McKevith, a British Nutrition Foundation scientist, noted that if as little as 2 to 4 percent of a meal is protein, the serotonin created by the carbs is unlikely to make a difference. And to this Dr. McKevith added, “many foods – such as milk, beans and even potatoes – contain both carbohydrate and protein.”

Quite a jump

As has been the case since the name “Atkins” first came on the scene, there is always a good deal of controversy and confusion whenever people are trying to compare diets or draw conclusions. In this case, I first heard the basic details of this study from a radio report that took the idea of low serotonin production due to a high protein diet, linked that idea with the possibility that low levels of serotonin may be associated with heart disease, and then took a huge running leap to jump to the conclusion that the Atkins diet may cause heart disease. That’s quite a stretch to say the least. Not to mention irresponsible “reporting.”

What the radio report didn’t mention – and what you won’t find in most of the coverage – was that Dr. Wurtman has developed a weight-loss program of her own called Adara, which offers personalized fitness plans as well as “wardrobe consultations.” The Adara program claims to address “overeating prompted by the failure of high- protein/low-carbohydrate dieting.” And on the Adara web site you can order Serotrim, a high-carb beverage designed to “control mood and appetite-related disturbances.”

You know what makes me cranky? Researchers who publish studies because they have a financial interest in the results. .

The record doesn’t lie

As I’ve said many times, the Atkins diet isn’t for everyone. Some people need more carbohydrates than others. And many people don’t need to go to the extreme of eating nothing but protein in order to lose weight. What can’t be denied is the fact that the Atkins plan has helped millions of people lose weight and develop healthier eating habits over the past 30 years.

Does Atkins make you cranky? Maybe for a few days. But bad research makes me cranky even longer.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute

“Carbs Essential for Effective Dieting, Good Mood, Wurtman Says” Tech Talk, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2/25/04,

“Atkins Zombies: Diet Sparks Depression” Lorraine Fisher, The Mirror, 3/2/04,

“Atkins ‘Can Put You in a Bad Mood'” BBC News, 3/1/04,

“Rival Says Atkins Diet Can Make You Depressed” Sarah Boseley, The Guardian, 3/2/04,