The Dire Connection Between Diet and Obesity, Depression, and Anxiety

A physician's researcher adds to evidence that hyperprocessed foods are triggering highly problematic brain changes
BY Martha Rosenberg
Martha Rosenberg
Martha Rosenberg
Martha Rosenberg is a nationally recognized reporter and author whose work has been cited by the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Public Library of Science Biology, and National Geographic. Rosenberg’s FDA expose, "Born with a Junk Food Deficiency," established her as a prominent investigative journalist. She has lectured widely at universities throughout the United States and resides in Chicago.
October 19, 2022 Updated: March 24, 2023

The link between obesity and mental health disorders is more significant than most people realize, and one physician researcher has been working to better understand the reasons.

Obesity has become epidemic, with the average American man now weighing 198 pounds—up from 166 in the 1960s—and the average American woman weighing 170 pounds—up from 140 in the 1960s. Concurrently, mental disorders like depression, anxiety, ADHD, and post-traumatic stress disorder are also becoming epidemic, and Dr. William Wilson, author of “Brain Drain,” believes the phenomena are correlated.

While many researchers have linked several of these conditions to factors related to modern life—everything from sitting too much, to social isolation, to environmental contaminants including endocrine disrupters—Wilson believes the overarching cause is our food. Or more accurately, his findings focus on how the food we commonly eat triggers a neurological/psycho-emotional disorder he calls “carbohydrate associated reversible brain syndrome” or the CARB syndrome.

Wilson is the rare family physician who is also active in the research community, a combination that led to his work in the field.

According to Wilson, the long-term consumption of highly processed foods made by Big Food, or the “Food Industrial Complex” as he calls it, has had a profound impact on brain function. These foods are packed with high glycemic carbohydrates and sugars that drain the body of crucial neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. This loss nudges people toward mental disorders even as it compels the body to store extra fat—regardless of how much the person eats.

“I noticed a strange correlation [in my patients] between certain brain dysfunction symptoms and changes in body composition, and the symptom changes always preceded the body composition changes,” Wilson told The Epoch Times.

In other words, psychological factors seemed to have a causative role in weight gain.

“To me, this suggested that when it comes to fat storage, the brain calls the shots,” he said​​.

Wilson made this observation after taking the somewhat unusual step 16 years ago to begin measuring body composition using a Futrex machine. It measures body composition far more accurately than the typical method of using body mass index (BMI), which is a formula based on dividing weight by height. Unfortunately, BMI doesn’t take muscle mass into account.

Even people with anorexia can still have excess body fat, Wilson says.

Over the years, Wilson has amassed a database of more than 18,000 cases, and he noticed another pattern: When body composition improved so did several psychological conditions.

A 2003 paper by Harvard researchers theorized that 14 common brain disorders may be part of an overall disease called “affective spectrum disorder.” The paper got Wilson thinking.

“I realized they were the same symptoms associated with changes in body composition and I eventually identified 22 symptoms that fit this pattern,” he said.

The symptoms that Wilson says characterize CARB syndrome are:

  1. Carbohydrate cravings
  2. Abnormal hunger drives
  3. Excessive physical and mental fatigue
  4. Difficulty concentrating and focusing
  5. Poor impulse control
  6. Feelings of depression
  7. Excessive anxiety
  8. Excessive mood swings
  9. Insomnia
  10. Lack of proper sensory filtering
  11. Low self-esteem
  12. Low self-image
  13. Loss of cognitive function
  14. Lack of empathy
  15. Chronic pain
  16. Short-term memory problems
  17. Internal restlessness and racing thoughts
  18. Poor listening skills
  19. Obsessive-compulsive tendencies
  20. Intestinal symptoms
  21. Increased communication lag time
  22. Thinking about food and eating at inappropriate times

At the heart of CARB syndrome is a pattern of disordered eating that is linked to shifts in brain chemistry and mental health.

The symptoms of CARB syndrome can overlap with many traditional brain disorders, Wilson said, which creates confusion in the medical and scientific communities.

“For example, bipolar disorder has been with us since the dawn of human civilization, characterized by mania and psychosis—a complete separation from reality,” he said.

“Over the past 50 years, we have been seeing a lot of people with hypomania but no psychosis. The medical profession decided to call this ‘bipolar disorder II,’ which, in my opinion, is wrong. These patients have CARB syndrome, which is unrelated to bipolar disorder I. If you treat them with antipsychotics, over time they get worse and gain a lot of weight.”

Disordered Eating

People with CARB syndrome don’t eat like normal people, Wilson explained.

“In normal, healthy people without CARB syndrome, mild cravings for sugar and highly refined carbohydrates can occur, especially after consuming processed food, but these cravings tend to be mild and transitory,” he said.

In those with CARB syndrome, “these cravings become very intense and persist regardless of food consumed,” he said. They push people to consume more of the very food that is frying their brains, triggering a vicious circle of disease and declining quality of life. There are likely multiple reasons for these pathological cravings, including fluctuating glucose levels.”

Published Research Supports Diet–Brain Connections

Studies in scientific literature have supported Wilson’s tenets. In a study published in the journal Current Nutrition Reports in 2019, researchers wrote: “Dopamine receptor agonists show attenuation of obesity and improvement of mental health in rodents and humans. Modulating brain insulin and dopamine signaling in obese patients can potentially improve therapeutic outcomes.”

In other words, fixing dopamine issues decreased obesity and improved mental health in the subjects.

Research published in 2017 in the journal Birth Defects Research notes that recent studies have highlighted how “palatable high fat and high sugar ‘junk’ foods” affect brain function, “resulting in cognitive impairments and altered reward processing.”

“Diet can lead to alterations in dopamine-mediated reward signaling, and inhibitory neurotransmission controlled by gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), two major neurotransmitter systems that are under construction across adolescence,” the study authors wrote.

“Poor dietary choices may derail the normal adolescent maturation process and influence neurodevelopmental trajectories, which can predispose individuals to dysregulated eating and impulsive behaviors.”

In short, eating poorly can affect brain development and trigger disordered eating, even as it undermines impulse control.

This year, research published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research also studied links between diet and brain function in adolescent rats. The researchers looked at the role of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), an ingredient found in almost all junk food.

“While HFCS consumption has been linked to an increased likelihood of obesity and other physical health impairments, the link between HFCS and persistent behavioral changes is not yet fully established,” the researchers wrote.

“The present study aimed to assess whether adolescent HFCS consumption could lead to alterations in adult behaviors and protein expression, following cessation,” and the researchers found it did.

“Taken together, these data suggest that adolescent HFCS consumption leads to protracted dysfunction in affective behaviors and alterations in accumbal proteins which persist following cessation of HFCS consumption,” they concluded.

Wilson cowrote a 2021 article with Dr. Richard Johnson, a top fructose researcher, in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, which The Epoch Times cited earlier this year. Titled “Fructose and Uric Acid as Drivers of a Hyperactive Foraging Response: A Clue to Behavioral Disorders Associated With Impulsivity or Mania?” the article also buttresses the CARB syndrome concept.

Is There a Link Between CARB Syndrome and COVID-19?

Obesity has been linked, in the scientific literature, to a greater chance of contracting COVID-19 as well as a greater chance of developing complications from the disease, which Wilson also notes.

“I believe that in many cases, there is a two-way connection between COVID-19 and CARB syndrome,” he said. “Because the brain plays a critical role in maintaining a healthy immune system, I believe that people with CARB syndrome are more prone to developing COVID-19. Once people have the illness, they don’t fully recover due to their malfunctioning immune system, and they end up with what is termed ‘long COVID-19.’

“If you peruse the typical symptoms of long COVID-19, they closely overlap with typical CARB syndrome symptoms.”

If someone develops COVID-19 and doesn’t already have CARB syndrome, they are more likely to develop it down the line, Wilson said.

“That’s because COVID-19 alters brain function, making individuals more prone to developing other brain disorders like CARB syndrome. Thus, COVID-19 and CARB syndrome seem to be connected in a deadly dance into sickness and diminished quality of life,” he said.

How Can Those With CARB Syndrome-Like Conditions Recover?

Because neurons “dump” neurotransmitters when exposed to high glucose levels, and the body then excretes them, Wilson said he gives patients precursors of neurotransmitters such as the amino acids L-tyrosine, DL-phenylalanine, and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-htp) and sees their condition improve.

“I also add L-glutamine, an amino acid that helps to suppress those pesky cravings for sweet and starchy food,” he said.

Not surprisingly, more healthful and conscientious eating makes a difference in those suffering from negative diet/brain connection, said Wilson, who offers some recipes on his website

As a final word, Wilson said, “CARB syndrome is preventable, reversible, and treatable,” and no one should be discouraged.

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