She wouldn’t remember. Why would she? It was at least 15 years ago since I appeared as the only guest on her afternoon television program, discussing the benefits of carbohydrates on mood and controlling appetite. After I wrote a book on how nutrients can influence mental performance and mood, one of her many producers asked me to be on her show. We discussed our mutual craving for carbohydrates in the afternoon, and when asked for snack suggestions that would be diet appropriate, I mentioned baked sweet potatoes, popcorn, and toast and jam. The sweet potatoes and bread appealed to her. She understood immediately the connection between eating carbohydrates, increased serotonin levels in the brain, a better mood and decreased appetite. (She is a very smart woman.)
But alas, my advice to her was soon lost, smothered under a steamroller marketing campaign to promote high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets. A movement to tarnish carbohydrates as the cause of obesity, and extolling the virtues of eating only protein and fat as the path to thinness nirvana, started around that time with Dr. Atkins. (His high-fat, high-protein diet caused him to exit the world not too long afterward.) Soon the low-carbohydrate South Beach diet (with mouth-watering pictures of low carbohydrate foods) followed, and the nation was hooked on eliminating carbs from their diet. (Interestingly, despite the popularity of the South Beach diet elsewhere, South Beach itself is filled with Italian restaurants serving pasta and pizza; an Italian bakery selling gigantic loaves of freshly baked, crusty bread is so crowded it is often hard to get in the door!)
Soon after it became popular in our culture, not eating carbohydrates was praised as a way of returning to the pre-Stone Age menu of raw meat, occasional berries, and edible twigs known as the Paleolithic Diet. Fear that eating a piece of bread would turn one into a look-alike Tubby the Tuba, eliminated bread baskets from the kitchen table, and recipes for sandwiches using lettuce wraps rather than bread became popular. It did not matter that eliminating bread, potatoes, rice and pasta in favor of beef, chicken, fish, and cheese drained the brain of serotonin, and left the dieter with a personality that ranged from grumpy to Attila the Hun. No matter that the satiety-producing effects of serotonin no longer could turn off appetite, and serotonin’s soothing aura could no longer help people to fall asleep naturally without sleep aids. No credence was paid to that after a low-carb diet, weight was gained quickly and efficiently as the brain pummeled the ex-dieter into now overeating carbohydrates in an attempt to replenish serotonin stores. No matter that the previous Weight Watchers point system was rigged against carbohydrates except fruit, which does not increase serotonin levels.
Now, finally, Oprah has squashed the bread phobia. Certainly the instant increase in the worth of her stock in Weight Watchers, after she announced her 26 pound weight loss eating bread on their new diet plan, must convince some that their portfolio, if not their scale, will benefit from a return to carbohydrates.
It is unclear whether those in the Weight Watchers organization understand the relationship between eating carbohydrates, an increase in brain serotonin, a decrease in appetite and an improvement in mood. Dieters are deliberately given few limitations on what foods to eat and avoid. (However, the new Smart Point System does allow food choices to be more flexible and less directed.) Moreover, it is unlikely that information about how to eat carbohydrates in order to harness the power of serotonin is conveyed. Unless the carbohydrate snack such as rice cakes, popcorn, pretzels or baked potato is eaten with very little protein and fat, i.e. five or fewer grams of each… no serotonin will be made. Weight Watcher dieters are probably unaware that two pieces of bread stuffed with protein foods like turkey or tuna will not produce the satisfying satiety of eating carbohydrates alone. The program likely does not inform them that protein interferes with the synthesis of serotonin, nor tells them to eat carbohydrates at least 30 minutes before protein is eaten, or two-to-three hours afterwards. They may not be able to translate the small amount of carbohydrate necessary to turn on serotonin synthesis, about 25 grams, into Smart Points.
No matter. They will listen to Oprah. She is someone whose pronouncements change people’s lives, almost always, for the better. Her cry of, “I love bread!” may be one of those pronouncements. If she can convince the carbohydrate-avoiders to start eating foods that produce the calming, soothing, mellowing, and appetite-reducing effects of serotonin, then who knows? Maybe the rest of us will be thinner and happier.