Book Review: The Serotonin Power Diet

March 17, 2017 at 2:10 pm

Last week I was doing some reading about weight loss while breastfeeding. There is a common misconception that breastfeeding promotes weight loss. It turns out this isn’t the case, at least for many women. Prolactin, one of the primary breastfeeding hormones, actually slows the metabolism of fat (Source). I’ve gained weight myself since giving birth nearly 15 months ago. My particular weight gain situation is compounded by a medication as well. The SSRI I take for my anxiety and depression has a side-effect of weight gain for many people. All of my family members have gained weight from taking anti-depressants, so it isn’t a surprise that I would as well.

When I attempted to wean off my medication three years ago, I dropped the weight quickly, but I also descended into a dark, suicidal hell. Those who love me agree that my will to live is much more important than being thin. Initially my medication-induced weight gain translated to being approximately 20-30 lbs heavier than I was pre-SSRI. With my added weight gain from pregnancy and breastfeeding, I am now approximately 60 lbs heavier than I was for most of my life.


With my 2nd baby in 2007 and then 2016

Before dealing with this unwanted weight gain, I had never experienced body image issues. I didn’t understand that, for some overweight people, extra pounds can come from a variety of factors beyond the person’s control, such as medication. Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, has studied weight loss, carbohydrate cravings, serotonin, and emotional well-being at MIT. I appreciate these words from her Psychology Today article, “Stop Blaming People for Being Fat!

“Look at her/him,” we think, “Look at how big he/she is!”  And we assume that the individual could easily be thin if only he/she had some self-discipline, will power, and control. Anyone who has struggled with weight knows how simplistic and irrelevant these attitudes are. . . . The weight gain of many who are obese may be due to situations that they are unable to control, and/or resolve, and/or accept.

It was through this article that I discovered Dr. Wurtman’s book, The Serotonin Power Diet. Reading that this diet could specifically help individuals, like myself, who have experienced antidepressant-associated weight gain was very encouraging. I put it on hold at my local library right away, and I picked it up yesterday and started reading. Here are my thoughts about the book and its diet program.


Things I like about the book

The most important thing I gained from this book is the valuable information about how the timing and combinations of our snacks and meals can have a huge impact on our moods and our weight. For example:

  • The brain produces very little serotonin after a snack or meal containing a lot of protein. This is because of the competition from other amino acids preventing tryptophan from crossing the blood-brain barrier. This information was life-changing for me!
  • Eating a small, quick, bland carbohydrate-only snack an hour before eating lunch or dinner can prevent overeating at meal-time because it satiates the brain’s craving for tryptophan/serotonin. The book explains very well how carbohydrates enable tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier and produce serotonin more effectively than foods high in protein or fat.
  • Binge-eating carbohydrates happens naturally when the brain has been starved of tryptophan. This lack of tryptophan can happen because of either eating a low-carb diet or eating carbs only in combination with proteins and fats.
  • Fructose or artificial sweeteners won’t have the same serotonin-boosting effects as the carbohydrates contained in grains or glucose. For the appetite-suppressing effects to work, pre-meal carb-only snacks have to be the right type of carbs.

I love that the book acknowledges that nature has given us a very effective means of boosting our moods through eating carbohydrates. We don’t have to stop eating carbs to lose weight. We just have to be more strategic about how and when we eat them. This is welcome news because carbs are delicious, and I have felt a noticeable negative impact on my moods in the past when I have tried to limit them. Given that I have a brain/body prone to depression/anxiety, it would make sense why my body wouldn’t feel very happy without the carbohydrates I need to produce feel-good hormones. I’m grateful to understand now that our brains absolutely must have carbohydrates.


Things I didn’t like about the book

One of my primary complaints about The Serotonin Power Diet is that it strongly discourages eating fat. All of the dietary suggestions in the book recommend low-fat or fat-free items. For a book that claims to be backed by research, I expected more. Low-fat and fat-free diets are not supported by research. Period.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) conducted a comprehensive review of the data generated from randomized clinical trials that explored the efficacy of a low-fat diet and found that low-fat interventions were no more successful than higher-fat interventions in achieving and maintaining weight loss for periods longer than one year (Source).

I wanted to love this book, and I wanted it to be just what I was looking for. But this one issue has really tainted the book for me. I do value all of the important information I gained from the first few chapters of the book, but the dietary recommendations that make up most of the rest of the book disappointed me.


My Take-Aways

The book has definitely inspired me to be more strategic about when and how I eat carbs. I have already begun to try eating small carb-only snacks an hour before eating my meals. Time will tell if this strategy will be effective for me. The book also strongly encourages exercise, and I appreciated this kick in the pants. I plan to start doing more yoga in addition to my daily meditations, more brisk walks and hikes, working in my just-planted garden, and maybe some running or weight-lifting.