Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Book review: The Serotonin Power Diet

How would you like to snack your way to weight loss, on carbs, no less? Your response might be, "Are you kidding?" Drs. Judith Wurtman and Nina Marquis are not kidding; snacking is an integral part of The Serotonin Power Diet. Before you get excited, though, the snacks are pretty uninteresting, at least at first (rice cakes, anyone?). And this diet depends on good old approaches like portion control, low-fat food, and exercising. There is no magic bullet.

The idea behind the diet is that when our brains are not making enough serotonin, the nuerotransmitter made famous by Prozac's effect on it, we crave carbohydrates and can't control our appetites. Why would that be? Because brain chemistry, rather than the stomach, tells us when to stop eating. Serotonin also plays a role in mood regulation, and when we have enough, we are content and calm. Hence "comfort food" has a biochemical basis as well as an emotional one.

The key to managing serotonin requirements is how we eat. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. According to the book, when carbs are eaten with protein, tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids in order to pass the blood-brain barrier. When carbs are eaten alone, the other amino acids clear the blood more quickly allowing more of the slow-poke tryptophan to reach the brain and the brain to make serotonin. Hence, you feel better.

All this translates into snacking on carbs that are not high in calories in order to control cravings, and modifying how much protein you take in to promote tryptophan production. The snacks are prescribed as to type, amount, and timing. In the first two weeks of the diet, there are three snacks a day and no protein is consumed at dinner. In the second phase, two snacks and some protein at dinner are allowed. In the third phase, one snack and more protein at dinner. Along with the food regime comes exercise, which is just as important. So, yes, you can snack, but you also have to get off your butt. A lot.

Does this diet work? I'm sure it does, if you follow it. Any approach that causes you to expend more calories than you take in makes you lose weight. The unique part of this diet is the snacking, and it makes perfect sense. Have a small snack an hour before dinner, and you're less likely to pig out.

Is the science sound? The authors have strong bone fides (MIT, Columbia, George Washington University, NIH), and the references they cite come from respectable academic journals. These are good indicators.

Is the book helpful? I would say yes, quite. There are lists of acceptable snacks, meal plans, and recipes. (I tried a curry recipe, and it was pretty good.) I particularly liked Chapter 8, "Now What Do I Do?" The authors present real-life situations and describe how to stay on the diet in the face of them. Also, the plan is geared towards not having to do a lot of complicated cooking.

One must take any book about lifestyle change with a grain of salt. After all, if books worked, there would be no need for psychotherapists or the diet centers the authors run. People often need to be in the company of people in order to make big changes, which a diet is. The book is also chock-full of suggestions along the lines of, "Too much to do? Get your kids to help with the chores." To me, such advice sounds a bit flip, like the authors are not taking personal roadblocks seriously, even though I'm sure this isn't the case.

The Serotonin Power Diet is aimed at people who have gained weight back after being on a low-carb diet and people who have gained weight on antidepressants (for some reason, they increase carb craving). It's applicable to anyone, however, and has the allure of snacks. Sounds like a winner to me.

Cross-posted to Blogcritics.


Nina Marquis said...

Dear Nancy,

Thanks for sharing the principles of The Serotonin Diet with your readers! Our clients indeed find that snacking spoils your appetite just like our mothers feared it would when we were kids. Yes, people say rice cakes taste like styrofoam (who's eating styrofoam anyway?) but the point is to have non-tempting snacks when you fear you they may taste so good you'll overeat them.

My kids are 4 and a half, 3 and a half, and nearly 2 so having them do chores that help me simplify my life is not exactly happening, but hey, at least doing the chores with them, like folding the laundry (except when they think it's fun to swing the neatly folded stacks of clothes to the other side of the room!), setting the table and having them help me cook by standing on chairs in the kitchen slicing a vegetable or two or stirring (more like spilling!) the stir-fry on the stove, makes my work a lot more fun and less stressful in the end.

As we all know, prioritizing time for yourself (and bringing more movement into your life) is key and the happier you are with yourself and your life, the happier those around you will be.

Judy and I are available by email through our website at http://serotoninpowerdiet.com for any support or tips that would be helpful in their weight loss journey in following the principles of The Serotonin Power Diet. We wish for all weight loss success and happiness along the way.

Nancy said...

Wow, Nina, thanks for writing! As to the points you make, I erred on the side of brevity in making my own points in the review. I wondered if I should have changed the rice cakes comment to something more inclusive, because the list of snacks is definitely more interesting than that. And I know you're not being flip when you make suggestions for lifestyle, I just know from experience that such suggestions in a book can sound easier to implement than they are.

I wish you success with the book. Again, thanks for writing.