Often when people are feeling down they reach for the comfort foods like chocolate, cakes and other sweet indulgences, as these simple carbohydrates help boost mood. This approach may bring short term pleasure but it does not take long for the feelings of guilt, sadness and depression to creep back in.
If this high carbohydrate/ high sugar approach does not work to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, what about the growing trend of high fat and low carbohydrate diets to help with anxiety and depression?
Low carbohydrate diets have become popular in the last few years as they are quite effective to lose weight, which in itself can often boost mood and self esteem in the short term. If you are overweight a low carbohydrate diet can also help to balance your blood sugar levels, high blood sugar levels will lead to fluctuations in your mood and energy levels.
These can be great short term results, but what about the long term affects.
Low carbohydrate diets and depression
Many people feel liberated on a low carb diet, they are no longer always searching for food, have better energy and feel great mentally. But for all the success stories of low carb diets there are other people out there who are left feeling flat and depressed eating a low carb diet.
A low carb diet can also work great in the short term, but symptoms of insomnia and irritability can start to creep in after a few months, this can be frustrating especially after such promising results.
One of the reasons that a low carb diet can affect mood is that it causes changes to your guts bacteria levels, your beneficial bacteria “feed” on healthy carbohydrates from vegetables and starchy carbohydrates. The change in diet can lead to a change in the composition of your gut bacteria, this can affect all aspects of your health, including your mood.
I see a low carb/ high fat diet as a short term solution for people who are overweight, or have high blood sugar levels as this can help to improve your metabolism and energy levels. Long term a low carb diet can affect your neurotransmitter production, serotonin in particular needs carbohydrates in the diet for optimal levels.
How many carbohydrates should I eat?
If a diet high in carbohydrates can lead to blood sugar fluctuations which can cause anxiety and depression, and a diet low in carbohydrates can lead to low serotonin which can lead to irritability and depression then how many carbohydrates should you eat?
I don’t like to count macronutrients as this can overwhelm some people, and cause other people to be far too obsessive with what they eat, I like to just keep it simple.
If you focus on having some protein with each meal, include some of the beneficial fats like olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil, and fill up the rest of your plate with vegetables and other carbohydrates that are as least processed as possible.
Carbohydrates to include are
- starchy vegetables like sweet potato
- legumes and lentils
- fruits in moderation
- unlimited amounts of vegetables
If you follow this approach your daily carbohydrate intake will fall between 100 and 200 grams a day, this is the middle path or moderate approach.
The timing of carbohydrates
If you find that your energy levels and mood improves on a low carb diet, but don’t want the negative consequences of eating this way long term, then you may benefit from eating your carbohydrates later in the day.
If you keep to a low carbohydrate diet in the day you will have the benefits of stable blood sugar, balanced energy levels and weight loss. Think eggs, fish, chicken for your protein sources, good quality fats and non-starchy vegetables during the day.
At night time have the majority of your starchy carbohydrates to boost serotonin and melatonin levels, improve your sleep and keep your gut bacteria healthy. It is a myth that you won’t “burn” these carbohydrates at night and they will be stored as fat, so if you are wanting to lose weight this is a good way to do it.
What about treats
Nobody should have to follow the perfect diet all of the time, sweet treats are part of life, part of celebrations and denying yourself an indulgence will only lead to resentment to the way you are eating.
But treats as the name implies are a “treat”, something to be had occasionally and not an everyday food item. I like the 80/20 rule, if 80% of your meals comprise of real unprocessed foods then having the occasional indulgence is ok, unless of course you are a “sugar junkie” when a zero sugar approach is often the best.
There is no one size fits all when it comes to macronutrient and calorie intake, each person has to experiment to see what works best for them, and if what your doing right now is not working it would be a good time to consider making some changes
There is no one size fits all for most things, including how many carbohydrates you should eat.
The Inuit people thrive on a high fat diet that includes only 3% of their diet being carbohydrates. On the flip side the Kitavan people of the Pacific eat a diet consisting of 75-80% carbohydrates with low levels of fat.
The key take away is that both the Inuit and Kitavan people don’t eat processed foods, and their particular diet is well suited to their genetics, and they both enjoy good health, that is until they start to adopt the high processed food Western diet. The optimal diet for you is going to vary depending on your genes, stress levels, sleep quality, exercise and body composition.