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Stress and Carbs

Just when we think we have our heads on straight about the dangers of carbs, we get thrown a curve ball. Like the September 2008 article in Mind, Mood, & Memory published by Massachusetts General Hospital entitled “A Carbohydrate Cure for Stress.” Carbs a cure for stress? Hmm. That’s sure food for thought! I thought that carbs in response to stress were the devil in disguise.

According to the article, “…a healthy carbohydrate snack may be among the most effective stress-busters for individuals who do not suffer from abnormal glucose metabolism, such as diabetes.” Well, duh, we’ve known all along that carbs do the trick. The article explains why: healthy carbohydrates (whole grain snacks, sweet potatoes, etc.) trigger a cascade of biochemical brain changes that increase serotonin. Low stores of serotonin make you anxious, depressed, and irritable and high stores contribute to feeling happy, in control, and at ease. Judith Wurtman, PhD, MIT researcher and co-author of The Serotonin Solution, concludes that “Judicious snacking—pretzels, low-fat crackers or even a few jelly beans before lunch and again in the middle of the afternoon—can help you keep stress-reducing serotonin at optimal levels and should help you resist stress and keep your cravings for carbohydrates more in control.”

It’s good to know your instinct to choose carbs when you’re jittery, overwhelmed, edgy, and feeling a little loopy were spot on all along. The goal is to consume these foods according to the rules of “normal” eating: stay aware while you’re eating and stop when you’re full or satisfied. And to eat complex carbohydrates, not simple ones, an important distinction which Wurtman stresses. Of course—like I’m telling you something you don’t know—overeating even complex carbohydrates will only make you feel sluggish and yucky and produce feelings of being out of control around food.

How you use this new, fascinating but perhaps unsettling, information is up to you. I trust the advice of Wurtman, a highly respected researcher and author. For those of you already snacking on complex carbs when you’re stressed, you can stop feeling guilty—as long as you don’t overeat them. For those of you who’ve been shying away from complex carbs (absent having abnormal glucose metabolism), maybe it’s time to try eating them in a manner that Wurtman calls “judicious” and I call “normal.” Try small amounts when you’re stressed and see if they work to improve your mood. Do it as an experiment, not as a chance to consume as many carbohydrates as you can in one sitting. Instead, think about adding them to your diet in small amounts during the day.

Letter from a Client to Her Mother
Effortful Study

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