Can Eating Carbs Reduce Food Cravings?

In a new book, The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain, the authors Judith J. Wurtman, PhD and Nina T. Frusztajer, MD, propose that eating carbs before a meal can actually help weight loss efforts. The connection between carb consumption and appetite suppression is due to a change in brain chemistry that occurs when carbs are eaten before a meal. Their theory is supported by independent research conducted by the authors.

I am intrigued by this new concept because until now I have always considered carbs an appetite stimulant because of their action to raise insulin levels which can then cause blood sugar levels to drop a few hours later, resulting in relative hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) which is a powerful trigger to more eating.

Thanks to the authors and their publisher we are able to provide an excerpt from the book The Serotonin Power Diet, and you can decide for yourself if this is an idea you would like to pursue.

Serotonin: What It is and Why It’s Important for Weight Loss
By Judith J. Wurtman, PhD and Nina T. Frusztajer, MD,
Authors of The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain

Serotonin is nature’s own appetite suppressant. This powerful brain chemical curbs cravings and shuts off appetite. It makes you feel satisfied even if your stomach is not full. The result is eating less and losing weight.

A natural mood regulator, serotonin makes you feel emotionally stable, less anxious, more tranquil and even more focused and energetic.

Serotonin can be made only after sweet or starchy carbohydrates are eaten.

More than 30 years ago, extensive studies at MIT carried out by Richard Wurtman, M.D., showed that tryptophan, the building block of serotonin, could get into the brain only after sweet or starchy carbohydrates were eaten. Although tryptophan is an amino acid and found in all protein, eating protein prevents tryptophan from passing through a barrier from the blood into the brain. The reason is simply numbers: Tryptophan competes for an entry point into the brain with some other amino acids. There are more of those other amino acids in the blood than tryptophan after protein is eaten. So in the competition to get into the brain, tryptophan is at a total disadvantage and very little gets in after a protein meal like turkey or snack like yogurt.

But carbohydrates tip the odds in tryptophan’s favor. All carbohydrates (except fruit) are digested to glucose in the intestinal tract. When glucose enters the bloodstream, insulin is released and pushes nutrients such as amino acids into the cells of the heart, liver and other organs. As it does this, tryptophan stays behind in the bloodstream. Now there is more tryptophan in the blood than the competing amino acids. As the blood passes by the barrier into the brain, tryptophan can get in. The tryptophan is immediately converted to serotonin, and the soothing and appetite controlling effects of this brain chemical are soon felt.

Our studies with volunteers found that when people consumed a pre-meal carbohydrate drink that made more serotonin, they became less hungry and were able to control their calorie intake. Volunteers whose drinks contained protein — so that serotonin was not made — did not experience any decrease in their appetite.

Most of us have experienced the carbohydrate-serotonin effect on our appetite even though we were not aware of the connection. Have you ever munched on rolls or bread while waiting for the main course to be served in a restaurant? By the time dinner is served, twenty minutes or so after you ate the roll, your appetite has been downsized. “I don’t even feel that hungry” is a common response when the plate is put down on the table.

This blunting of appetite is not because you may have eaten 120 calories of roll. It is caused by new serotonin putting a brake on your appetite.

Successful weight loss depends on the power of serotonin to control food intake.

The carbohydrate-serotonin connection has a direct impact on our emotional state, too. Drugs that increase serotonin activity have been used for several decades as a therapy for mood disorders. However, our studies showed that natural changes in serotonin could have a profound impact on daily fluctuations in mood, energy levels and attention. In one of our early studies, we found that our volunteers became slightly depressed, anxious, tired, and irritable around 3 to 5 pm every day. At the same time, they experienced, in the words of one volunteer “a jaw-aching need to eat something sweet or starchy.” Several studies later, we were able to state that late afternoon seems to be a universal carbohydrate-craving time, and people who experience this craving use carbohydrates to “self-medicate” themselves. Carbohydrate cravers who consume a sweet or starchy snack are increasing serotonin naturally.

We carried out careful clinical studies to measure the effect of carbohydrates on mood and to make sure that the effect was not just due to taste or the effect of taking a break from work. Volunteers, all carbohydrate cravers, were given a carbohydrate or protein- containing food or drink that had identical tastes. Their moods, concentration and energy were measured before and after they consumed the test beverages. The carbohydrate serotonin-producing beverage improved their moods but the protein-containing beverage had no effect on either their mood or their appetite.

Eating carbohydrates allows serotonin to restore your good mood and increase your emotional energy.

Eating low or fat-free, protein-free carbohydrates in the correct amounts and at specific times potentiates serotonin’s ability to increase satiety. You will eat less, feel more satisfied and lose weight.

Here are five tips to get serotonin working for you:

Eat the carbohydrate on an empty stomach to avoid interference from protein from a previous meal or snack. Wait about 3 hours after a meal containing protein.

The carbohydrate food such as graham crackers or pretzels should contain between 25-35 grams of carbohydrate. The carbohydrate can be sweet or starchy. High-fiber carbohydrates take a long time to digest and are not recommended for a rapid improvement in mood or decrease in pre-meal appetite. Eat them as part of the daily food plan instead for their nutritional value.

The protein content of the snack should not exceed 4 grams.

To avoid eating too many calories and slowing down digestion, avoid snacks containing more than 3 grams of fat.

Do not continue to eat after you have consumed the correct amount of food. It will take about 20-40 minutes for you to feel the effect. Eating more carbohydrates during the interval is unnecessary and may cause weight gain.

Stress may increase your need for serotonin and make it harder to control food intake. Prevent this by shifting protein intake to the early part of the day; i.e. protein for breakfast and lunch and switching to carbohydrates by late afternoon. Eating a carbohydrate dinner with very little protein increases serotonin sufficiently to prevent after dinner nibbling. And the soothing effect of the serotonin prevents stress from interfering with sleep.

Boost Serotonin to switch off your appetite and turn on a good mood.

©2009 Judith J. Wurtman, PhD and Nina T. Frusztajer, MD, authors of The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain

Author Bios
Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain, has discovered the connection between carbohydrate craving, serotonin, and emotional well-being in her MIT clinical studies. She received her PhD from George Washington University, is the founder of a Harvard University hospital weight-loss facility and counsels private weight management clients. She has written five books, including The Serotonin Solution, and more than 40 peer-reviewed articles for professional publications. She lives in Miami Beach, Florida.

Nina T. Frusztajer, MD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain, counsels private weight management clients and is a practicing physician and certified professional life coach. She received her master’s degree in Nutrition from Columbia University and her medical degree from George Washington University. She lives in Boston, MA.

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  • low-fat-diet-example

    Hi, nice article. I wouldn’t slash your calorie ingestion all the way down to 1200. That’s for masses that are severely heavy, and is a really low figure. Such low calorie inhalation will probably make you feel sluggish and you won’t be up to drilling. 1500 calories a day should be fine, and if you’ll be workouts with Pilate’s and working, then 1500 is a good number. Just make a point to carry in the veges and fruit, drink deals of water, and eat breakfast. Also, stick to chicken and fish instead of red meat and fix your dairy consumption, as dairy is high in fat. If you are really challenging about turning a loss weight. You should have a feeling diet right way. It will work for you if you do it right. I lost 17 pounds in 6 calendar weeks with this way of life.

  • low carb diet meal plans

    The calorie is a unit of measure that shows the muscularity substance of fuel, in this context, food. Carbohydrates are a type of fuel, as are fats and proteins. You need a balanced mix of all three to routine. For weight loss proposes, calories matter, not carbs. At first i was a bit incredulous.The verity is our own metabolic process scheme play a vital part in finding the amount of body fat burned-out in the process of offering energy to the body.

  • Hank Frier

    I cannot totally agree with this arguement that eating CHO prior to a meal will curb appetite and increase satiety. On the one hand serotonin is only one neurotransmitter that maybe a putative signal for meal cessation. There is a redundancy of regulatory mechanisms both hormonal, e.g. leptin and ghrelin and neuronal, e.g. ileal brake that control food intake with the brain as the processor for all this information. Restauranteurs know very well the affect of offering bread to the customer. It gives the customer something to do waiting for the meal but also as you state elicits an insulin response drawing blood glucose into the cell. This effect enhances hunger by signalling the brain that more food needs to be consumed in order to elevate blood glucose. Tryptophan need not compete with all amino acids but must be in a proper ratio to neutral amino acids. Protein also elicits an insulin response which should prompt the same mechanism as stated above. There is also the cephalic insulin response which occurs to prepare the body for the meal prior to consumption.

    Bottom line we as scientists love reductionism however hunger, satiety and the various overrides are not that simplistic.

    Hank Frier

  • mike

    low carb diet meal plans: actually carbs matter, not calories. You can lose weight eating a high amount of calories if you restrict carbs enough. Read Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes for the scientific explanation.

    I understand you argument about eating carbs before a meal, and it makes sense. But for some people it may lead to weight gain if they can’t tolerate many carbs. It’s not the overeating that is the issue but the amount of carbs you eat and if you eat more than your body can tolerate it will be stored as body fat and you will gain weight, not good.

    If you tolerate carbs well and are not gluten sensitive than by all means eat bread before the meal. Many people wouldn’t find that viable though.

    There are other ways to lose craving for carbs. Go on Atkins, or other low carb diet, and after induction you should lose craving for carbs if you keep them in check.

    Second you could do excercise, that creates serotonin as well.

    Third by getting enough sunlight, going out for long walks in winter especially in the morning and early afternoon you will create serotonin.

    Fourthly you could buy 5-HTP or Trytophan and supplement for a short period of time to build stores. You may want to do that under medical supervision.

    My point is for some people eating bread, or 25 grams of carbs at one shot is counter productive, may lead to more hunger, and may lead to weight gain as it is scientifically proven that eating more carbs than you can tolerate leads to weight gain.