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Appetite and Attitude
Carbohydrates may cure a bad mood, says Judith Wurtman
By Mara E. Vatz

It’s mid-afternoon. you’re tired, cranky, and a little stressed. You reach for a cookie or some candy from the vending machine, and 30 minutes later, you feel a little better. Some might call this self-indulgence, but Judith Wurtman calls it self-medication.


Wurtman, a visiting scientist and director of the Program in Women’s Health at the MIT Clinical Research Center (CRC), maintains that carbohydrate cravings are not only about meeting nutrient needs. She says eating carbohydrates can improve a person’s mood and, in the right amounts, actually help regulate appetite—a suggestion that may come as a surprise (or a relief) to people on popular low-­carbohydrate/high-protein diets.

In studies she conducted with her husband in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Wurtman found that carbohydrate consumption can help women suffering from premenstrual syndrome, offering subtle improvements in their mood and ability to concentrate. Now, Wurtman is studying whether eating carbohydrates can help people suffering from seasonal affective disorder, a condition that leaves them feeling blue in the winter months.

Nutritional Science Pioneers
Wurtman and her husband, Richard Wurtman, who is director of the CRC, began studying carbohydrates more than 25 years ago, when research on factors that control eating behavior was scarce. In the early 1970s, Richard Wurtman was studying the synthesis of serotonin—a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, sleep, and appetite. He found that when a person eats carbohydrates, an amino acid called tryptophan is brought to the brain, which stimulates serotonin production. Serotonin, in turn, regulates carbohydrate intake: when serotonin levels are high enough, cravings for carbohydrates subside, while protein cravings go up.

When Richard made this discovery, “it was like a little crack opened in the door,” Wurtman says. “We wondered together whether there might be a specific appetite for carbohydrates, and whether that might account for certain groups of people who are obese.”

By the late 1970s, Wurtman had joined her husband at MIT to conduct a series of studies at the CRC. The pair observed the eating and behavioral patterns of volunteer patients, and over the next two decades, they found several examples of the connection between mood and carbohydrates. In one study, they discovered that women who suffer from mild to moderate premenstrual syndrome could alleviate their symptoms by eating carbohydrates. In the late 1990s, Wurtman developed a carbohydrate-rich drink called Serotrim, which contains a mix of carbohydrates—some that the body quickly digests, and others that take it longer to digest. The drink is used as part of a weight-loss program to help boost serotonin levels and curb cravings.

Wurtman, who cofounded the Boston-based Adara weight-loss center in 2002, says serotonin is nature’s way of controlling how much we eat. “It makes you feel full—not in your stomach so much, but in your head,” she says. Although carbohydrates have long been vilified for causing weight gain, Wurtman says that heeding carbohydrate cravings is just as important as heeding a craving for water. But it’s important to eat the right kinds of carbohydrates. “When you have a carbohydrate craving, there’s nothing that says you have to satisfy it with french fries or doughnuts,” she says. “Satisfy it with a potato, or satisfy it with brown rice.”

Janine McDermott, who has worked with Wurtman both as associate director of the Program in Women’s Health and as an Adara program manager, says people tend to be drawn to low-carb/high-protein diets because they show quick results. But she warns that those results may not be long lasting. “People have this feeling that when you’re dieting you can’t be eating,” she says. Wurtman’s philosophy is unique in that “her diet plans are trying to keep you stable and satiated throughout the day,” McDermott says.

The Nutritional Frontier
In collaboration with David Mischoulon, a psychiatrist from Massachusetts General Hospital, Wurtman is now studying whether a dose of carbohydrates can help treat people with seasonal affective disorder. “We want to see whether increasing serotonin with a dietary intervention—carbohydrates—has a beneficial effect on cravings and mood,” she says.

She is also coauthoring a book on nutrition based on her recent clinical research and on weight-loss programs at Adara. The book is aimed at people who find they can’t control their eating when they complete a low-carb/high-protein diet, people who overeat as a reaction to emotional stress, and people who have gained weight while on antidepressants. “Other diets are based on things like blood sugar or on eliminating toxins, or eliminating entire categories of foods, and our diet is none of those,” says Nina Marquis, Adara’s medical director and Wurtman’s writing partner. “It’s more about the timing of the foods you eat to optimize your brain chemistry.”

For people who have failed on a diet because they felt unsatisfied and irritable, Wurtman’s findings could help them lose weight and counteract emotional triggers at the same time.

Mara E. Vatz