If I can Keep Kosher, Why Can’t I Stay on a Diet?
Judith Wurtman, Ph.D. Explores this Quandry
By Susie Davidson
BROOKLINE - Judith Wurtman, Ph.D. is one of the better known international names in nutrition
research. Founder and director of TRIAD Weight Management Center at McLean Hospital, which
specializes in weight gain caused by antidepressant meds, she is a Clinical Associate at the MIT
Clinical Research Center. For years, she and her husband Richard have conducted research into the
relationship between the brain chemical serotonin and its effect on overeating and mood. Their
work with the diet medication phen/fen was a checkered endeavor; heart valve problems reported in
a few patients put the brakes on this heretofore promising regimen.
Nonetheless, the Wurtmans have contributed greatly to the science of food and mood, and continue
their active involvement in cutting edge research, books, lectures and program management.
On Feb. 10 at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, as part of their “Sunday Conversations” series, Judy
Wurtman’s topic, “If I Can Keep Kosher, Why Can’t I Stay on a Diet?”, covered the difficulties of
weight loss experienced by Hasidic women.
“I’m sure all of you know that keeping Kosher is not a trivial undertaking,” she said. “In
addition to the household regulations, every aspect of your eating has to be scrutinized. One
would assume that anybody who can keep Kosher can stay on a diet.”
“It can’t be that hard,” Wurtman recollected telling a group of women at a talk arranged by a
daughter-in-law of the Bostoner Rebbe (“it was the only talk I’ve ever given where everybody had a
perfect hairdo,” she joked). “Not only do you keep Kosher but look what you all go through at
“Yet, with 7 or 8 kids, time dependent activities, stressful Thursday nights of Shabbat
preparation, they are exhausted and overwhelmed; they are a microcosm of why so many of us, can’t
stay on a diet,” she said. “They don’t smoke or drink, go to movies, shows, or dancing.
“We, like they,” she explained, “tend to overdose on the carbohydrates we’re eating in order to
Wurtman spoke of the programs she ran at McLean, with her program’s carbohydate drinks specially
formulated to induce serotonin production. She explained how to ingest carbohydrates in order to
produce optimal brain serotonin – not liberally until one was in a stupor, but minimally, on a
relatively empty stomach, and without protein.
She spoke of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which could be mitigated by increased exposure to light,
and how antidepressants often initially spur serotonin production, causing the brain to slow down
its own normal work with weight gain an unfortunate consequence.
Wurtman’s ten books to date include The Serotonin Solution, Managing Your Mind and Mood Through
Food, Eating Your Way Through Life, The Carbohydrate Craver’s Diet, and, with her husband Richard,
Nutrition and the Brain: Disorders of Eating and Nutrients in Treatment of Brain Diseases and
Wurtman was a graduate of the first Meah class at Hebrew College; she has been taking courses
there ever since. She recently had her Bat Mitzvah with others at Temple Beth Zion, officiated by
Rabbis Moshe Waldoks and Ellen Pildis. She reads from the Torah several times a year during
Shabbat services and is Co-chair of its Synagogue Practice Committee. She is also currently
studying Hebrew at MIT Hillel.
“The Sunday Conversations began in Oct. 2001,” says Rhoada Wald, Coordinator of the free, public
series which is also overseen by Reggie Silberberg, who is Chair of TBZ’s Education Committee. “We
try to present a diversity of topics on issues affecting the Jewish community, building on the
expertise of our synagogue members.”