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Body Language : Moody? Depressed? Tired? Translation: You could be getting the word that your diet is all wrong.

October 03, 1995|SUZANNE SCHLOSBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the death of a business associate threw Frank Nemiroff's restaurant supply company into turmoil, Nemiroff expected the rough road that followed--the chaos of moving and reorganizing his business and the 14-hour workdays.

It was the constant hunger and lightheadedness that took him by surprise.

"I couldn't concentrate, and I had trouble working with numbers," recalls Nemiroff, 34, of Venice. "People would talk to me, but their words wouldn't find their way into my brain. I'd find myself getting a little irritable. I'd have less patience with myself and others, and I'd withdraw."

As it turned out, the culprit wasn't stress, although stress probably triggered the problems. It was Nemiroff's diet.

Unlike many anxiety-ridden people, Nemiroff wasn't scarfing down truckloads of Oreos; he actually stuck to his usual high-carbohydrate, low-fat way of eating. But that wasn't working. On the advice of his wife, a nutritionist, Nemiroff cut down on carbohydrates and stocked up on protein.

"Instead of bagels and cereal, I began to eat canned tuna, smoked salmon, roasted turkey and cottage cheese," he says. "Almost immediately, I had more energy. I was able to complete projects without having to take food breaks. I wasn't dozing off, and my patience improved."

What, so now protein's in and carbs are out? No, experts say, it's not another diet fad. The real point of Nemiroff's experience is something scientists and nutritionists are just now discovering: "More often than not, even minor changes in what and when you eat can have pretty astounding effects on how you feel," says Elizabeth Somer, a Salem, Ore., nutritionist and author of "Food and Mood" (Henry Holt, 1995).

The food choices you make, experts say, often can determine whether you're grouchy, happy, depressed, alert, calm or sleepy. They can help you rise to the occasion under stress, or lead you to conk out at your desk. They can even determine how moody a woman gets before her period.

What you ate for breakfast could mean the difference between putting a curse on employees at the Department of Motor Vehicles and saying, "Gee, it's fun to stand in line at the DMV."

The key, experts say, is to figure out which foods work for your body, and to understand how your food choices affect how you feel. For some people, specific foods can trigger certain moods. Some people are so sensitive to sugar, for instance, that even one glazed doughnut can send them on a mood-swing roller coaster.

Larry Christensen, chairman of the psychology department at the University of South Alabama, has tested more than 100 clinically depressed subjects and found that, for at least 30% of them, depression vanishes--within a week--when they eliminate sugar. For others, caffeine is the offender.

"With these sensitive people, I can turn depression on and off like a water faucet," Christensen says.

Science can't yet explain why sugar has such a dramatic effect on some people, but Christensen recommends that they eliminate all added sugar, including foods that contain hidden sugars, such as ketchup, fruit drinks and fruit yogurt.

For other people, like Nemiroff, too much carbohydrates--not just added sugar, but starch as well--can lead to lethargy and irritability. They don't metabolize carbohydrates in an effective way, says Santa Monica registered dietitian Bonnie Modugno; their body's cells don't get enough nourishment, in the form of glucose, from the bloodstream.

"They complain that they can't concentrate, and they can't think clearly," Modugno says. They tend to get immediate satisfaction from eating more carbohydrates, but that may only exacerbate the situation in the long run. These people may be better off eating less carbohydrates and more protein, whether it's meat, dairy products, tofu or beans.

For many people, mood swings are caused not by specific foods, but rather by a shortage of calories, vitamins and minerals. "People don't realize that malnutrition is a major cause of depression," Modugno says. "When people restrict their caloric intake, it has a phenomenal behavioral impact."

Problems include depression, excessive sleeping and impatience. "Our tolerance goes right through the window," Modugno says. It's a subtle form of malnutrition that's especially pervasive in Los Angeles, where fat is considered evil, she says. And it's a particular problem among women. "They think they're doing this healthy thing--they don't put butter on their potato, they eat only three ounces of meat, they only eat fruit for snacks, they have a cup of cereal for breakfast. They cut out eggs, cheese and red meat, and they eat fat-free this and fat-free that. They have this restrained eating mind-set."

This is a problem because our emotions, thoughts and behavior are orchestrated in large part by our neurotransmitters--the chemicals that transmit messages between nerve cells, and between nerve cells and the rest of the body. Many neurotransmitters are made up of amino acids, which are obtained from the diet.

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