Carbo–Loading for Stress

By Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D.

Is stress causing you to overeat? Relax. Eating the right foods before stress strikes will help you tame tension and beat the urge to


We all know about athletes who carbo-load before a marathon or long-distance bike race. The extra carbohydrates are stored in

muscle as glycogen and provide a quick source of energy over a long period of time.

Yet few of us think to carbo-load before a stressful event even though by doing so, we decrease the risk of bingeing afterward. Just as

prolonged exercise depletes the muscle of glycogen (which may be why athletes “hit the wall” after the twentieth mile of a

marathon), stress can deplete the brain of serotonin. Because we depend on serotonin to calm and soothe us, when there is too little

serotonin, we feel agitated, upset, tense or sad and often overeat.

“My hand goes into the cookie jar as soon as I complete my weekly phone call to my mother,” complained one of our

patients. “I eat and eat until I no longer feel like screaming or crying.” An executive told me that he immediately eats three

jelly doughnuts whenever his staff meeting goes badly. “I am out the door and into the doughnut shop before the others have left

the conference room.”

You can prevent yourself from repetitive stress-induced bingeing by boosting your serotonin levels before going into a stressful


Eat about 140 calories of fat-free carbohydrates, such as cereal, bagels, potatoes, pasta, bread, crackers, pretzels or popcorn. Eat the

carbs on an empty stomach if possible about an hour or so before the event. Serotonin will be made about 30 minutes after you finish

eating. You will find that you are much calmer and in control during the event itself and will not even think of eating after it is over.

Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., is a research scientist in the department of brain and cognitive science at MIT and the director of

TRIAD, a weight-loss center associated with McLean Hospital in Boston.