Physiology Phriday: Dieting starves your brain?


I heard a psychiatrist recently tell her depressed client that she should not go on a diet to lose weight. The client was confused. She thought that losing weight would help her with her self-esteem. She had not been exercising and had put on 15 pounds over the past 3 years. So, she asked her doctor why not. This was the explanation (paraphrased):

Exercise does provide a natural antidepressant and so I heartily encourage you to start an exercise program. However, many diets consist of decreasing foods rich in carbohydrates. Getting more protein is good but your brain needs glucose to produce neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin) and foods rich in carbs are more easily turned into glucose. When you starve your body of glucose, your brain is the first place that starves.

Maybe this explains a bit of yo-yo dieting. The person is feeling poorly about weight, reduces foods that provide simple sugars in order to lose weight, starves their brain of serotonin (thereby creating a greater feeling of depression), and then caves to a binge in order to feel better. 

Don’t know if this supposition is true, but it might be important for those on antidepressants to make sure that they are keeping a balanced diet and exercising frequently.

3 Comments

Filed under counseling, counseling science, Psychiatric Medications

3 responses to “Physiology Phriday: Dieting starves your brain?

  1. Yes, yes, and yes!

    Been there, done that.

    I’ve been struggling with major depression for about six months now. I tried three different antidepressants before finding one that worked. (Thank you, God!) I gained 20 pounds in that six months.

    Now, even though my mood is stable, I feel bad about the weight. I was googling my drug and weight gain one afternoon, thinking, “maybe the depression wasn’t really that bad. Maybe I’ll be okay without the drug,” and I realized that I had eaten ten little kit kat bars while I was reading.

    Yup. Must be the drug. Nothing AT ALL to do with the chocolate.

    I went on a diet for two weeks and felt AWFUL. Back to the kit kats…gained the five pounds back that I lost.

    Then I decided to see a nutritionist. BEST decision I’ve made. She took one look at my food log, asked me a few questions and said, “I think you’re eating to make yourself feel better.”

    She encouraged me to eat more, not less, but of the right stuff. I’m walking for 40 minutes a day, taking a multivitamin, and eating lots of whole grains, protein and produce.

    I’ve never felt better in my life. I noticed it within 2 days. It’s also eliminated almost completely the exhaustion I had every afternoon. (I thought that was the drug, too…) If I never lose a pound, I’m sticking with the healthy stuff. (Bonus — my family is eating better too! Oh, and I’ve lost 2 pounds.)

    Anyway, sorry to go on and on. I’m just amazed by how much better I feel. I would encourage anyone who is dealing with depression to take a holistic approach to their recovery. Therapy and meds have helped. Diet and exercise have also helped. All together, I feel great.

    I never imagined all the junk I was eating was having that much impact on my mood. But it was.

  2. Jess

    I have heard that milk, bananas, and spinach are good foods to eat if depression is a struggle. No idea at all if there is any basis in fact there or not.

    I am not all that much of a supplement person, but two that noticeably improve my mood are fish oil (omega-3s) and SAM-e.

  3. karenestelle

    I started struggling with depression around the age of 11 and now believe a lot of it had to do with a low blood sugar condition I still struggle with. I do feel better if I eat better, which I really have done for the last few years, but when I am having a particularly bad day – I do find the chocolate & pasta especially appealing! I suppose it could be my brain trying to get the carbs – or me just comfort food self-medicating. I think I could have avoided a whole lot of depression over the years if I had really followed my diet. I had such bad fatigue from the diet and especially after having my kids.
    Oh – and when we lived in Juneau, Alaska, I started taking Sam-e and I love it. It really seems to help me.

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