When it comes to diet, many people focus on how it affects their physical health, their figure and the environment. But we don’t often think about how our diet influences our mental state.
In her new book, This Is Your Brain on Food (Little, Brown & Company, 2020), Dr. Uma Naidoo, a psychiatrist, nutritionist and trained chef, and director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, unpacks the complex ways in which food contributes to psychological wellness, offering practical—and sometimes surprising—dietary solutions for combatting a host of physical and cognitive health issues, including ADHD, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, dementia and many more. We caught up with her to dig deeper.
What is nutritional psychiatry?
The field of working with individuals to use nutrition and nutrients (whole, healthy foods) and ingredients such as spices to improve mental well-being.
What inspired you to write this book?
In my clinical work as a psychiatrist, and having been trained in nutrition and as a chef, I had been speaking to patients about how to use nutrition to better cope with well-being and to improve the benefits of medications they were taking. It was getting incorporated into the style of work I was doing, which is a combination of holistic, integrated and functional. The book itself is focused on using nutritional strategies to feel better.
You came across some surprising food finds in your research and writing. Could you share a few?
There is significant evidence that blueberries improve PTSD. Research shows that nitrates in processed meats drive depression. And turmeric with a pinch of black pepper has been very effective in mental well-being of several conditions.
During these times of COVID, your book topic feels especially relevant because so many people are anxious and dealing with mental health issues. Would you agree and why?
People are struggling with uncertainty, and their mental well-being is more important than ever. Even if someone is coping OK, they still need to fortify their mental health to prevent any kind of lapse into depression or feeling anxious. It’s an important time to focus on brain health; gut-healthy foods will help with this. And boosting immunity is also important during these COVID times, not overdosing on supplements but paying attention to diet: eating a well-rounded diet of healthy, whole foods and embracing fruits, veggies and sources of lean protein.
In your book, you’ve developed a series of brain-healthy recipes for different issues, like depression, anxiety and focus. Does each menu have key ingredients that can help address these issues? Or is the intention that most or all of these recipes support overall mental health?
I looked carefully at the ingredients for different mental health issues [discussed in each chapter throughout the book] and tried to pair those up with recipes. But whole, healthy ingredients are meant to be interchangeable. So you can take something from Chapter 6 [dementia and brain fog] and even if you’re having symptoms from Chapter 2 [depression], I encourage you to mix and match ingredients as you wish, because my intention is that all of the ingredients and recipes have healthy brain benefits. The premise of the book is to integrate the types of foods I recommend into your routine during your journey toward eating for a healthy brain.