Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Seratonin Power Diet ©2006

With food being equated more and more with medicine, and psychology and food being inextricably intertwined, it's no wonder we're starting to see over-the-counter quasi-prescriptive diets that attempt to effect a medical improvement in the self-diagnosing general public. In The Serotonin Power Diet, published by Rodale, authors Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, and Nina T. Frusztajer, MD collaborate to assemble a diet that they claim will allow you to lose weight and regain control over emotional overeating and cravings.

The idea is that serotonin has appetite suppressing qualities that not only improve your mood in general, but make you less inclined to eat more than is required by your body. Therefore, the goal is to encourage the brain to produce more serotonin at regular intervals throughout the day, until your body re-trains itself away from the nasty negative habits that a lifetime of eating has gotten into.

So, what does it look like?

In a Nutshell

This diet is all about the carbohydrates, along the lines of a post-Atkins remedial education on the nature and benefits of carbohydrates (which, after all, along with fat and protein, one of the three basic building blocks of food), and strategies for eating carbohydrates to promote an increase in serotonin production. There are suggested, moderate calorie guidelines as well as suggested amounts for protein, fat, and carbohydrate consumption throughout the day. The diet is broken into three phases - increasing serotonin production, balancing serotonin production, and controlling serotonin production. There are almost 200 pages of recipes and more meal suggestions for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for all three stages of the program.

The Good

It's nice to see pasta back on the general diet menu. A lot of foods that are no-nos on more traditional diets are permitted here, but the diet provides more structure to help rein in bad decisions. Make no mistake, this diet does not allow you to wallow in "forbidden" foods Primarily, there is a focus on limiting fat and protein intake along side those carbohydrates, so the jumbo platter of fettucini alfredo is still out of bounds.

The best thing this book does is strategy. It provides a lot of tips, scenarios and solutions for a wide variety of social settings, situations, time constraints, and other hurdles, while still leaving a lot of latitude for individualization.

The Bad

There are way, way, way too many anecdotal examples in the text. Between the Marthas and Marys, Larrys and Martins, my eyes were rolling back in my head, and it was frankly difficult to keep reading at times. Fortunately, this dies down after the first chapters of the book, but I found it rather tedious. We're not so dumb that things need to be explained using Patient X-whose-name-has-been-changed to provide an example.

The authors also have a proprietary product "Serotrim" which is available to help people get the "right" balance of carb/fat/protein in their snacks, and while ordinarily this would send me screaming in the other direction, the diet by no means hinges or harps on use of the product, and plenty of non-proprietary suggestions are made. I question the value of discussing the product though, if they're not trying to drum up business for it.

While the recipes tend toward using minimally processed foods, there are some exceptions, including the usual "diet" foods - light this, calorie-reduced that, fat-free the other. Can we just stop that already, and focus on the real food? Also, as discussed below in the test recipe section, the recipes do not seem to have been field tested, as there are clearly proportional ingredient issues.

The Scary

There is a strange assumption that the dieter is surrounded by unsupportive people. That may be the case for some, and some strategies for dealing with that are welcome, but it's a bit depressing of an assumption to take as a given. This assumption is underscored by the sheer number of recipes that make exactly one serving. Sure, you can double most of them, but really, if I'm going to the effort of making Red Lentil and Cauliflower Curry (and I might!), I'm going to make more that one serving, even if I'm only cooking for myself. The leftovers sound like an excellent lunch to take to work the next day, or a home made freezer-meal waiting to happen. Because quantities of certain ingredients (notably meat and starch) are varied depending on whether the consumer is male or female, it's really counter-productive to try to cook these recipes for a family, as you will need to split the difference or choose to increase the recipe based on only the women's portions or men's portions.

There is a brief FAQ-like chapter that mentions the glycemic index, which the authors wave off rather cavalierly, saying that unless you are diabetic, it doesn't really matter, given the small portions of foods ingested as straight carbs (usually as snacks). I thought that was unfortunately dismissive, and it appears to be the only place where the authors suggest that this might not be a good diet for you, if you are diabetic. It also ignores those who are simply trying to avoid becoming diabetic or insulin resistant, which is an obvious concern for heavier individuals. I found this response to a valid question about blood sugar to be handled inadequately. It should have been an excellent opportunity to talk about the need to control the amount of snacks and the timing of snacks so to keep blood sugar levels steady, but it left me wondering if the authors aren't too keen on scrutinization of the insulin issues that might arise from the plan. Because so many people who are overweight because they are emotional eaters (the apparent target audience for the book), there's bound to be a large number of them who have insulin-related concerns. If these concerns can be allayed, this would have been the time to do it - or better still, to point to a (currently non-existent) separate chapter on dealing with insulin production.

There is a restaurant guide section, broken down by cuisine, that attempts to steer you to better choices when dining out. However, some of the suggestions are a bit questionable. Black beans in a Mexican restaurant, for example, are unlikely to be available "not cooked in lard" unless you happen to be in a restaurant that is also vegetarian.

Test Recipes

I tried two entirely unrelated recipes from this book.

Meat, Rice & Beans with a Kick

Any recipe that's got a habanero chile in it is going to catch my eye. Chiles are one of the best tools a dieter has, because the amount of flavour they add, uncomplicated with fat, or significant sugars, gives you a lot of bang for your dietary buck.

Olive oil cooking spray
lean ground beef or turkey - 2 oz. women, 4 oz. men (I used 3 oz. turkey per serving)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 piece jarred roasted red pepper, chopped (how big is a piece? I used a whole pepper per serving)
1 habanero chile , chopped
brown or white rice, cooked - 3/4 cup women, 1 cup men (I used 3/4 cup cooked white basmati per serving)
1/4 cup canned white beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup canned diced tomatoes

The meat is browned in a skillet (coated with cooking spray), to which the onion, garlic, red pepper, and chile are added. I note here that the amount of onion is crazy. I made four servings, because I was serving two people and wanted leftovers to take to work, so that would mean a total of 4 onions, chopped, for 3/4 lb. of turkey. That is way WAY out of whack. Did they perhaps mean green onion? An amount in cups would have more clearly illustrated what the author had in mind. I used one large onion, chopped. It was a good amount, and I like onion. I did use fully eight cloves of garlic, by the way, even though it seemed a little overkill-y, too. It was fine, though, but I love garlic.

The rice is cooked separately, and, along with the beans and tomatoes, stirred into the meat/onion/peppers mixture at the end, just before serving.

I should also note that my local habanero source had dried up, so I used two serranos, and added a shot of habanero hot sauce.

The amount of food overall, portion-wise, was very good. It is a filling meal, and quite satisfying in that regard. However, there were some serious flavour issues. Salt was needed, and I'm not really an add-salt person. However, with the amount of rice involved in this dish, along with all of the vegetable mass, a little salt was needed. Not much, mind you - a half teaspoon of kosher salt would be fine for the four servings, if I was to make this again. As it was, I added a pinch to each serving after tasting. Also, the dish lacked any sort of unifying ingredient to bring everything together. Some lime juice might help, and after a couple of bites I sprinkled some ground cumin over my bowl, which helped a lot. Essentially, even with the big chile flavour, there wasn't any earthy or base notes in the dish, which made it the culinary equivalent of an orchestra of only flutes and piccolos. Next time, more cumin. I also added (after the initial taste test) cilantro, because I had some that needed using, and the dish so clearly needed something.

At the end of all of the tweaks, I have to ask myself if it doesn't make more sense to just make my favourite Mexican-style arroz (rice) dishes, just using leaner meats (and less) and little or no added fat, rather than try to fix this recipe. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't anywhere near as good as I had hoped it might be.

Indian Roasted Potato Chunks with Mint and Yogurt Dipping Sauce

Dipping Sauce (basically, a sort of raita)

3/4 cup fat free plain yoghurt
1 medium cucumber, peeled and chopped or grated
1/4 cup chopped mint
1 Tablespoon low-sugar orange marmalade
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
ground black pepper

Combine ingredients in a small bowl.

The cucumber instructions are inadequate. How much cucumber is a "medium" cucumber? Are they using field cukes, or long English? I had Long English on hand, and I ended up using about four inches, grated - about the same amount by volume as the yoghurt. Anything more than that, you don't have a sauce, you have a salad. Seriously, the amount should be given in measured quantity, not this vague "medium cucumber" nonsense that assumes I know what type and size of cucumber counts as medium. Rookie mistake, authors.

The sauce was tasty and pleasant, and did not need any additional ingredients.


Baking potatoes, cut into chunks ( 8 oz. women, 11 oz. men)
2 teaspoons canola oil
2 Tablespoons curry powder
Black pepper

Wacky amounts, again. Two tablespoons of curry powder? I used one, and had a very thorough, generous coating on my potatoes. Two is just too much. The instructions have you dumping everything into a re-sealable plastic bag and shaking to coat the potatoes, but I just through it all in a bowl, and tossed it around with a spatula to spare my fingernails from getting turmeric-stained. I also added a small amount of salt (my curry powder does not contain any).

Potatoes are turned out onto a sheet and baked at 450 F. for 1 hour. I baked at 425 F., because my oven sets off the smoke alarms if I go higher, but it worked fine.

The potatoes were delicious, and went well with the sauce. I will definitely be making this again, and I might vary the seasoning according to mood, too. Imagine a Greek version (raita and tzatziki are cousins, after all) with garlicky lemon rosemary potatoes!

This recipe was a solid win, despite the minor common-sense adjustments needed.

Further Thoughts

The main thrust of the entire program seems to be scheduling and highly specific snacking. In some ways, I'm not sure that this is really an actual diet, more of a few strategies stitched together with some extra padding (i.e. chatter about exercise, stress and other healthy living topics). However, there's a lot of useful information to take away from this book, and you don't really have to buy in completely to take advantage of the more scientific information that is presented. You just need a chisel to pry out the bits you want.

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