Carb Up, Stress Down

Judith Wurtman’s stress-management diet.

There’s a powerful link between food and stress. After studying the effects of diet on mood for 15 years, Judith Wurtman of M.I.T. concludes that a midafternoon snack of a carbohydrate-rich food such as pretzels or popcorn will ward off tension as well as hunger.


Carbohydrates set off a series of biochemical events that produce serotonin, the chemical that controls the brains stress-management system. Serotonin makes us feel calm and in control when events beyond our control threaten us, says Wurtman, a research biochemist and co-author of “The Serotonin Solution.”

To trigger serotonins effects, you have to work with your brain, she explains. There’s a rhythm to your serotonin level: it’s naturally high in the morning, so you don’t need a lot of carbohydrates for breakfast. But at 4p.m. and 4a.m., there’s a detriment that needs fixing. The effects of serotonin, she says, start 30 minutes after eating and last for three hours.

We’ve summarized Wurtman’s stress-management diet below. Amounts are for women; men might need slightly more calories from fruits and vegetables (stress-neutral foods). Note that the real stress reduction comes with the afternoon snack and dinner, when you’ll need it most.

Coordinates: Judith Wurtman,; “The Serotonin Solution” (Fawcett Columbine, 1996), $24

Meal What to Eat The Reason What to Avoid The Reason
Breakfast 1 cup of yogurt topped with 3 TB cereal and 1/2 banana or 1 egg, 1 sausage, 1/2 muffin. Breakfast is not designed to relieve stress; the goal is to nourish the body with a balance of proteins and carbohydrates. A carbohydrate-only breakfast like toast or a muffin. You need protein as well as carbohydrates to stimulate morning activity.
Lunch Turkey sandwich on bagel with lettuce and tomato or grilled chicken fillet with baked potato and salad. Going heavy on proteins creates chemicals that provide energy. Carbohydrates like pasta. Can you really afford that afternoon siesta?
Midafternoon snack 1 handful of baked potato chips or pretzels or 1 handful of fat-free candy like Tootsie Rolls, licorice, jelly beans. Your body is naturally low in serotonin at 4 p.m. and needs to be replenished. Even if you don’t feel hungry, give yourself an “emotional snack.” Fruit. Fructose, the sugar in fruit, is the only carbohydrate that doesn’t stimulate serotonin.
Dinner 1.5 cups of cooked pasta with 1.5 cups vegetables and 1 oz chicken or 1 baked potato with 1 oz turkey and 1/2 cup of salsa; 1 cup of spinach and 1 cup of strawberries plus 1 glass wine. Going heavy on carbohydrates will help you to calm down and relax for the evening. Wine, in moderation, can enhance the dinner’s calming effect. Lots of proteins
(like a whole chicken breast) or fats (like ice cream for dessert).
Fat and protein will stop serotonin from working its magic.