Comfort foods get their generalized nickname for obvious reasons; we reach for certain foods, namely those carb-heavy foods like sweets, fried foods, breads, and pasta, when we’re feeling stressed, depressed, or even under the weather. We may also reach for them when we’re feeling especially good, comforting ourselves through the jitteriness of a budding new romance, a new job, a long overdue vacation. But that word “carbs” often comes to mean only those unhealthy indulgences, not taking into account healthy carbs like fruit and whole grains.
Now, two studies emerge that divide the carb issue even further: One recent study says that indulging in those carbs may be one of the worst things you can do for your mood, while another says we’ve evolved to eat them, and actually need them to fuel our brains. So, which is it?
The first study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, says carbs can increase a woman’s risk of depression, particularly after menopause, “any influence that refined carbohydrates has on mood could be commensurate (corresponding in size or degree) with their proportion in the overall diet.”
The research team out of Columbia University looked at data on 70,000 postmenopausal women collected between 1994 and 1998. The team found that women with a higher glycemic index were 22 percent more likely to suffer from depression. For women who consumed large amounts of added sugars and refined grains, the risk went up to 23 percent.
The researchers noted that excessive glucose levels in the blood triggered a hormonal response that reduces blood sugar levels. This process, they believe, may also lead to mood swings, fatigue, and other depression symptoms, particularly for postmenopausal women.
Refined carbohydrates such as bleached flour, polished grains, and refined sugars, have long been connected with poor health—not just for postmenopausal women. But swearing off of carbs might not be the best move, either. Another recent study found that the consumption of carbs may have not only led to humanity’s evolution, but made us smarter than if had we avoided carbs altogether. Not exactly news low-carb ‘Paleo’ eaters want to hear, but scientists say we’ve been conditioned to eat carbohydrates for tens of thousands of years, and without them, we could actually lose some of our mental capabilities.
According to the research, the human brain uses up to 25 percent of the body’s total energy reserves, and as much as 60 percent of the blood’s glucose (if you’re pregnant, it’s even more). Diets that are low in carbohydrates, such as the popular Paleo diet, are not as likely to meet the brain’s demand for glucose. In short, the human body has sort of evolved to eat Spaghetti-Os. Or, at least, a healthier version.
While excessive carbs, and certainly “bad” carbs aren’t likely doing any brain or body any favors, cooked starches, like sweet potatoes, squash, beans, and whole grains, are not only easily digestible by the human body, but help to meet the required glucose levels for proper brain function. “Eating meat may have kick-started the evolution of bigger brains, but cooked starchy foods together with more salivary amylase genes made us smarter still,” reports Science Daily.
And with all that’s wrong with our meat and dairy industries, skipping the animal products and embracing healthy carbs—even for women past menopause—may make us happier and a whole lot healthier in the long run.
Woman avoiding carbs image via Shutterstock