Dr. Judith Wurtman Serves Up Some Sweet Advice: Now You Can Have Your Cake and Diet, Too
Wurtman's controversial theory has sent many a smiling dieter off to the nearest vending machine for a gooey goody that can now be savored without guilt—and without blowing the salutary effects of six months of celery stalks. Her weight-loss program, based on seven years of research on rats and humans at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Nutrition and Food Science (where she is a research scientist), says you really can have your cake and diet, too.
Wurtman explains that serotonin, a chemical in the brain, is made after eating carbohydrates. When the brain needs to make more serotonin, we crave carbs. However, once we've ingested our quota of potatoes, pasta or pastries, the carbo-craving mechanism shuts down. This tiny biological red light performs properly only when it's satisfied with small doses of the tempting little devils themselves—in bread, cake, even candy. So while it is still not permissible to consume mass quantities, the moderate snack is back.
"It takes carbohydrate foods to control carbohydrate hunger," Wurtman explains. "If small amounts of carbohydrates are eaten every day at meals and at snack time—if you're never deprived of the carbohydrates that will shut off that hunger—you can control what you eat."
Not surprisingly, hers has proved an appealing philosophy to the hungry hordes who thought themselves forever condemned to leaf and stalk. More than 45,000 of them have scarfed down Wurtman's book since its January 1983 publication.
Unaccustomed to the limelight after years of serenity in the lab, the 46-year-old mother of two is amazed by the outpouring of relief and gratitude her book has generated. "One woman, a teacher, called in after seeing me on the Today show," recalls Wurtman, a confessed childhood chubbette who, at 5'5", now tips the scales at a modest 123 pounds. "She started my diet and in three weeks lost almost 10 pounds. She used to hide in her car after school every day stuffing Tootsie Rolls and Good & Plenty into her mouth. Now she eats just one bag of M&M's in the teachers' lounge. More important than her weight loss, she lost her guilt and feels in control."
Wurtman restricts her followers to 1,100 calories per day: 900 for meals and 200 for snacks. A typical day might include a pancake with diet syrup and skim milk for breakfast, shrimp and greens in a pita pocket at lunch, and flounder au gratin with broccoli and baked potato for dinner. Wurtman also recommends a daily 80-calorie "super salad" that's heavy on parsley. And, of course, there are the compulsory snacks: The book lists 120 sweets and starches that hover close to Wurtman's 200-calorie-a-day line. Included are such formerly forbidden munchies as Bit-O-Honey bars, plain M&M's and Milky Way snack bars.
While Wurtman says her diet is nutritionally complete, there are some in the field who aren't buying it. Dr. Robert M. Johnson, president of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians, has argued that carbo craving is psychological rather than metabolic. "I've put patients on protein diets and they stayed on them for more than a year with no carbohydrate binges," says Johnson. And University of Toronto nutrition scientist Harvey Anderson has pointed out that, aside from Wurtman's research, there is no proof in scientific literature to support the book's conclusion that encouraging obese people to eat carbohydrates will result in weight loss. "I hope it works," says Anderson, "but I haven't seen any evidence yet to support it."
But Wurtman—who lives in Boston's Back Bay with husband and collaborator Richard, 47 (their children, Rachael, 22, and David, 19, are at college)—insists she has made a small breakthrough. "This dispels the myth that will power alone is involved in losing weight," she says. "If the brain signals you to eat carbs, you can fight it for a while. But sooner or later you'll give in. So often people think it's their fault when a diet is not compatible with their body's needs. They should stop berating themselves when they fail."
If she's right, Wurtman will have exploded the narrow menu most dieters have had to live with—if you can call it living—and opened the door to a brave new world in which the Sugar Daddy takes its rightful place beside the broccoli spear in the never-ending battle of the bulge.