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Judith J. Wurtman, PhD

Judith J. Wurtman, PhD

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Does Avoiding Carbs Make Men Grumpy?

Posted: 03/11/11 07:48 AM ET

An article in the March issue of Details, a magazine devoted to men's fashions, entertainment, sports and food, devoted a long article to the evils of eating carbohydrates. Normally I do not read this magazine but I picked up a copy in my unisex hair salon because the magazine cover announced that the reader would be able to find out if carbohydrates were more addicting than cocaine.

It is a good thing that hair loss does not follow reading outrageously wrong articles because otherwise I would have had to cancel my appointment. It is not necessary to reiterate the errors concerning carbohydrates and metabolism; how eating any carbohydrate is going to cause immediate obesity (I wonder why so many people in the rice-eating countries of the world look so thin?) and how the brain can get along perfectly well without carbohydrate as its source of energy.

I was curious as to whether the author would advocate the cessation of breast feeding because the major energy source is carbohydrate, or whether he might promote eating lard rather than pasta before a marathon to make sure the muscles had enough energy? The author had it all wrong when he said carbohydrates are addicting. If so, then water must also be addicting, as we all need to consume it every day.

The article gave egregious examples of men stuffing themselves with bagels, doughnuts and brownies and suffering the consequences of bizarre moods, continual hunger and, of course, massive weight gain. Clearly the author has never been to a fast-food restaurant and seen grown men stuffing themselves with triple hamburgers coated with fatty sauces dripping off bacon and cheese slices. I suspect the men eating all that beef are not much thinner.

What is especially worrisome about the diatribe against carbohydrates is the effect this will have on men's moods. Is it possible that by avoiding carbohydrates, men might become irritable, grumpy, less focused, more restless and depressed? If so, might the cause be too little serotonin?

Do men realize that they, like women, need to eat carbohydrates in order for their brains to make serotonin? The only way their brains make new serotonin is when an amino acid, tryptophan, gets into the brain. This amino acid rarely, if ever, gets into the brain when protein is consumed. Tryptophan enters the brain only after any non-fruit carbohydrate is consumed. The process is facilitated by insulin. (Contrary to its evil character as described by the article, insulin in essential for life -- just ask any diabetic.) As soon as tryptophan gets into the brain, serotonin is made and its ability to carry out its many functions is enhanced.

Serotonin regulates mood, appetite, pain, temperature sensation and is involved in sleep. Too little of this essential neurotransmitter can cast the blanket of symptoms similar to PMS over a man. Think about those symptoms: i.e., anger, depression, fatigue, impulsive behavior, confusion, inability to remember and irregular sleep. These are linked to insufficient serotonin activity in a woman as she approaches the end of her menstrual cycle. Women know how to handle these symptoms. They eat carbohydrates, make new serotonin, and feel better.

Now men are lucky. In addition to being able to lose weight more easily on a diet (or so we women believe), they start out with more serotonin in their brains. That is just the way it is. So when men read an article exhorting them to throw away their Raisin Bran and eat egg yolks for breakfast, or shun any food that is not protein and fat, their brains do not immediately suffer from their carbohydrate-free diet. It takes much longer for the drop in serotonin levels to have an impact on their behavior than it would for a woman who has less to begin with. But eventually they too will need to make more or their moods may begin to change.

Life is too short and uncertain to go through it without enough serotonin. When a potato, bowl of rice or cup of cereal can help replace nasty moods with tranquil ones, why not indulge?

 

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