Dr. Uma Naidoo is widely regarded as a “triple threat” in the food and medicine space: a Harvard trained psychiatrist, Professional Chef graduating with her culinary schools’ most coveted award, and a trained Nutrition Specialist. Her nexus of interests have found their niche in Nutritional Psychiatry. Dr. Naidoo founded and directs the first hospital-based Nutritional Psychiatry Service in the United States and is the Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Nutritional psychiatry follows six pillars of using food as medicine for mental health. Understanding these is your first step in enhancing your diet and your metabolic health and achieving optimal well being.
Be Whole, Eat Whole
We emphasize following the 80/20 rule. With this, 80% of your diet should focus on whole, real foods with plenty of fiber (your gut and brain’s best friend!). This includes vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and protein. The remaining 20% of the time allows you some flexibility.
Eat the Rainbow
Different colored plant foods contain different brain boosting nutrients so in order to optimize the nutrient quality of your diet, be sure to eat the rainbow! With every meal strive to fill 75% of your plate with whole, fiber rich, low glycemic vegetables such as leafy greens, cucumbers, radishes, eggplant, mushrooms and tomatoes. The rest of your meal should include healthy fats like olive oil, walnuts or hemp seeds, low glycemic carbohydrates such as cauliflower or quinoa, and quality sources of protein such as salmon, grass fed beef, sardines, chickpeas and lentils. These foods are important for maintaining tissue, keeping inflammation down and good moods up!
The Greener, The Better
We all know that greens do a body good, and in nutritional psychiatry we know that greens do a mind good too! Leafy greens include spinach, swiss chard, collard greens, arugula, romaine and dandelion greens and we encourage you to eat 4-6 cups a day. Greens contain folate, an important vitamin that maintains the function of our neurotransmitters. Its consumption has been associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms and improved cognition.
Tap into Your Body Intelligence
An important aspect of mental wellbeing is mindfulness and the capacity to acknowledge how things make you feel, food included, and act accordingly. If you feel cranky or exhausted and need a nap hours after a sugary breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup, keep that in mind next time you’re choosing your morning meal. If something doesn’t make you feel good after eating it, it is probably not good for you. Pay attention to your mental health symptoms in response to various foods and use this body intelligence to guide you.
Consistency and Balance are the Key
Our minds are with us for the rest of our lives. In order to optimize our mental health in a lasting way, it is important to create sustainable dietary and lifestyle changes rather than falling into quick fixes or miracle diets. Following the 80/20 rule described in Pillar 1 is a great way to achieve balance is a sustainable way.
Avoid Anxiety Triggering Foods
The final pillar is so important for making all of the above pillars meaningful. Embrace the positive changes you have made to your diet and your relationship with food and avoid foods that will undermine your efforts. Inflammatory, anxiety inducing foods such as added and refined sugars in foods, industrial seed oils (soy, corn and grapeseed), nitrate containing processed foods and meats are not supportive of mental health. Listen to your body after eating them and consider which colorful, fiber rich foods would instead make you feel better.
As the silent and parallel pandemic persists and rates of COVID-19 related poor mental health rise, embracing nutritional psychiatry and its teachings can help so many people achieve or maintain positive mental health in the face of extraordinary challenges. Begin with understanding the six pillars of food as medicine and incorporating them into your life. In time you will be amazed at just how good food can make you feel, when you focus on making healthier choices.