Nov. 10, 2009 -- Research has shown that shedding pounds tends to put people in a good mood, but a new study finds that if they're cutting back on carbohydrates, these good vibes may be short-lived.
An Australian research team assessed changes in mood for dieters on either a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet, and found that throughout a year of dieting, a low-fat plan improved overall feelings of well-being.
The low-carb diet on the other hand, had the same mood-boosting effect at first, but this change in mood began to wear off after the first few weeks.
"This outcome suggests that some aspects of the low-carbohydrate diet may have had detrimental effects on mood that ... negated any positive [mood] effects of weight loss," the authors write.
The study, which was published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, is the first to look at emotional differences long-term between these two diets.
Lower the Fat, Up the Mood
Researchers had 106 participants follow a reduced calorie diet, but randomly assigned participants to a regimen that was higher in fat and very low in carbohydrates or one that allowed carbohydrates but with cutbacks on the amount of fat.
Participants met with a dietician twice a month to help them stay on track and researchers assessed participants' feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, and fatigue before the diet began, after eight weeks of dieting, 24 weeks, and at the end of the year.
Though participants consumed the same amount of calories and lost the same amount of weight -- 30 pounds on average -- only those on the low-fat diet maintained an increase in positive mood throughout the year.
"I'm not surprised at all that [dieters] would have a better mood while [still] eating healthy carbs," says Dr. Keith Ayoob, nutritionist and associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "When a diet is [very] low in carbs, it can start to wear you down."
The Carb Question
Ayoob adds that forcing your body to burn fat for energy instead of the carbohydrates it's used to, as dieters do during a low-carbohydrate diet, "is basically a starvation adaptation -- the way your body evolved to deal with long periods of calorie deprivation. It's a survival mechanism, not a way to live your daily life."
But many low-carb dieters would disagree. Amy Dungan, a blogger on low-carb dieting, has followed a low-carbohydrate diet similar to the one employed in the study for the better part of a decade and she credits it with helping her deal with her depression: "I was surprised by how it affected my mood, after the first few weeks I felt really good, not just emotionally, but my energy surged."
Dungan says that "it was the opposite with low fat diets", which she had tried with no success for years before switching to a low-carb regimen.
So why did mood fall for low-carb dieters in the study?
The authors said that this may be because low-carb diets have less flexibility than low-fat diets and can be more difficult to keep up.
Dr. Carl Lavie, Medical Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation and Prevention at the Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute, agrees, saying that in his experience, dieters "have a very hard time sticking with a low-carbohydrate diet long-term and…become irritable on such a diet. A low fat-diet, on the other hand, is easier to tolerate long-term and does not seem to produce such irritability."
Because carbohydrates, like have been linked with the production of positive mood chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, he says, "carbs are good mood lifters," Ayoob notes, so it's possible that the lack of carbohydrates themselves affected dieter's mood.
Laura Dolson, online writer and expert on low-carbohydrate dieting, adds that the results may have to do more with individual differences than problems with low-carb living in and of itself.
"Some people are more sensitive to carbohydrates and…these individuals are more likely to respond well to low-carb diets in a lot of ways…they talk about improved energy, improved concentration, and improved mood," she says.
No Carbs Good for Some People
"I've been following people for years on my [low-carb] forum [and] people often report improvement in mood to me."
By randomly assigning participants to the same, restricted amount of carbohydrates and restricting caloric intake, she says the study was "automatically not a standard low-carb diet."
"What makes it work well for people in the long term is that they are allowed to follow the natural amount of food their bodies need" and adjust the level of carbohydrate as needed.
A Diet to Call Your Own
"My take away from this is if you're going to lose the same amount of weight, but you're going to feel better about it on the low-fat…I [would] definitely…recommend the low-fat," Ayoob says, but Lavie points out that the study "did not really show bad moods in the low-carbohydrate group" so these findings "don't support any great harm from the low-carb diet."
For Dungan, ultimately it has been about paying attention to what works for her body. "I tried everything else, for me, [I'm] better off with a low-carb diet…because if I have more carbs…it's just something I can't seem to handle."
"[But] everyone's different," she says. "There are a lot of factors [deciding] how it affects you."