Proponents of low-carbohydrate diets claim that restricting carbohydrate-rich foods, such as bread, pasta, fruits and vegetables, promotes weight loss and wellness. Low-carb diets can pose many physical and emotional risks, however, ranging from nutrient deficiencies and increased cholesterol levels to depressive moods. Since no singular diet works for everyone, discuss your dietary and wellness goals with your doctor or dietitian.
Limiting carbohydrates may cause or exacerbate depressive symptoms. Dampened moods have become so commonplace among low-carb dieters, that they've been coined the "Atkins Attitude," according to Judith Wurtman, director of the Women's Health Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By restricting carbohydrates, your brain may not produce sufficient amounts of feel-good brain chemicals, such as serotonin. If your serotonin levels plummet, your moods are likely to suffer, too. Serotonin deficiencies can also damage your sex drive and ability to sleep properly, according to Cheryle R. Hart and Mary Kay Grossman, authors of "The Feel-Good Diet." You may also feel deprived of some of your favorite foods, such as breads, cereals and baked goods, while following a low-carb diet or experience lethargy and reduced motivation.
It is possible that a low-carb diet could enhance your emotional wellness. According to a study published in "Appetite" in 2007, a low-carb diet may help you follow your diet with greater vigilance and potentially boost your moods. In the study, obese women with polycystic ovarian syndrome followed a low-carb high-protein diet or a low-protein high-carb diet, both containing similar amounts of calories, for 16 weeks. Researchers found that though the women in both groups lost similar amounts of weight, the low-carb dieters displayed significantly reduced depression symptoms and greater improvements in self esteem than the high-carb dieters. Since protein-rich foods promote satiation and blood sugar balance, you may find it easier to resist tempting foods and thus feel less deprived.
In addition to experiencing low moods, or "the blahs," you also run the risk of developing more serious complications. Low-carb diets are particularly risky for people with history of psychological disorders, such as clinical depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder and bulimia. Carbohydrate-restriction can worsen risks associated with bulimia, according to dietitian Diane Keddy. In an "Eating Disorders Today" article, published in 2004, Keddy listed fatigue, increased carbohydrate cravings, nutrient deficiencies, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances -- irregular levels of bodily salts that help your heart and muscles function properly -- as potential mood-damaging risks associated with low-carb diets. The diets may trigger relapses or create need for stronger treatment for other disorders. Symptoms unrelated to these disorders may lead your doctor to misdiagnose your mental status. In addition, low-carb diets often pose only temporary weight reduction, which may be followed by more weight gain than you lost in the first place. This scenario can cause frustration and other depressive moods.
Reducing your carbohydrate intake may pose benefits, particularly if you currently consume excessive amounts of carbs. However, the type of carbohydrates you consume and creating balance in your diet may make a valuable difference. If you're drawn to a high-protein dietary lifestyle, Mayo Clinic nutritionist Katherine Zeratsky suggests doing so on a temporary basis to stimulate weight loss rather and choosing lean protein sources, such as skinless poultry and fish, over red meat. Whole grains and starchy vegetables are rich in nutrients and fiber and keep you fuller and energized longer than processed carbohydrates, such as white bread and sweets. They also stimulate serotonin production. Eating balanced meals, that contain carbs and protein, at regular time intervals is also important for blood sugar and mood balance. For best results, seek guidance and approval from your doctor or dietitian before beginning a low-carb diet.
- "Psychology Today"; Low-Carb State of Mind; March 2004
- "The Feel-Good Diet"; Cheryle R. Hart, Mary Kay Grossman; 2006
- "Eating Disorders Today"; Diane Keddy, MS, RD; Summer 2004
- "Appetite"; Psychological Benefits of a High-Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Diet in Obese Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome; Cherrie Galletly et al.; 2007
- MayoClinic.com: High Protein Diets: Are They Safe