As a Nutritional Psychiatrist, I see daily the immensely powerful impact that nutrition and lifestyle can have on our mental health. And, in the changes to our world wrought by events on a national and global scale, I am keenly aware of the great need for comprehensive mental health care which includes nutrition, lifestyle, therapy, medications when appropriate, and beyond.

I will tirelessly continue to advocate for bringing forth the food as medicine movement in mental health using the science-backed nutrition science. Here, find my 5 tips from my Pillars of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry to get started no matter where you’re at!

1. Be Whole, Eat Whole

‘Eat the orange and skip the store-bought orange juice which has no fiber and added sugars.’
My favorite way to quantify this is 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. Paying attention to the source of your food, and portions tend to be more useful for the long term than simply counting calories.
When 80% of the diet is composed of whole, nutrient-dense foods, we are optimizing the benefits we gain from our diet and allow us room for resiliency when we select something less healthy.

2. Eat the Rainbow

Different colored plant foods contain different brain-boosting nutrients, termed phytonutrients. If you’ve heard of terms like resveratrol, EGCG, ellagic acid, polyphenols, or carotenoids, these are key examples of phytonutrients that act in very specific, anti-inflammatory, pro-health ways across various parts of the body. These are the very compounds that give a vegetable or fruit its color – so when we eat the rainbow, we are offering ourselves a plethora of functional micronutrients for a healthier body and brain.
With every meal, strive to fill 50 to 60% of your plate with fiber rich, low glycemic vegetables such as leafy greens, cucumbers, radishes, cruciferous vegetables, 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; quality sources of protein such as salmon, grass fed beef, sardines, chickpeas, and lentils; and a small portion of whole grains like quinoa. I always strive to include alliums like onions and garlic, as well as cruciferous veggies like cauliflower and broccoli in my daily diet as they are rich in prebiotic fiber and are important for fending off toxic metabolites and inflammation, while promoting healthy blood vessels and a keen body and mind.

3. The Greener, The Better

We all know that greens do a body good, and greens do a mind good too! Leafy greens include spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, arugula, romaine, and dandelion greens; ideally, I advise having 4-6 cups a day (it’s doable – I promise!). Greens contain fiber, iron and folate, an important B vitamin that maintains the function of our neurotransmitters. Its consumption has been associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms and improved cognition.

Women working out

4. Body Intelligence

Too often, prescriptive approaches to nutrition fail what’s right for you, right here, right now, is something only you can decide. This is why developing a healthy relationship and connection between the body and mind is crucial: eating mindfully allows us the freedom to trust our bodies and make choices that serve us best each moment. If you experience brain fog or low energy, considering tracking what you’ve been eating to see if there’s a connection.

5. Avoid Anxiety Triggering Foods

  • Be cautious with caffeine: Found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, and some sodas, caffeine can increase heart rate and stimulate the nervous system, potentially leading to anxiety symptoms. If you drink coffee, don’t add unhealthy creamers, sugar, syrups, or sweeteners, and drink your coffee early in the day so it does not impact your sleep.
  • Alcohol in moderation: Excessive alcohol consumption can disrupt neurotransmitter levels in the brain and contribute to feelings of anxiety, particularly during or after drinking. One tip is to always stay hydrated with water.
  • Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates: High-sugar foods and refined carbohydrates can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, potentially triggering mood swings and anxiety.
  • Processed and Ultra Processed Foods are high in additives and unhealthy fats may contribute to inflammation and disrupt gut health, potentially affecting anxiety and mood. Highly processed foods often contain artificial additives and preservatives that may disrupt mood regulation and contribute to anxiety.
  • Excessive Salt: Consuming too much salt can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, potentially exacerbating anxiety symptoms.
  • Gluten: Some individuals with gluten sensitivity may experience anxiety as a symptom, leading them to avoid gluten-containing foods.
  • Artificial Sweeteners: Certain artificial sweeteners have been associated with changes in neurotransmitter levels and may trigger or worsen anxiety symptoms.
  • Allergens and Food Sensitivities: Food allergies or sensitivities to common allergens such as dairy, eggs, soy, and nuts can manifest as anxiety symptoms in some individuals.
  • Individual responses to food can vary, so it’s important to pay attention to how your body reacts to different foods and consult with a healthcare professional for personalized guidance and support in managing anxiety through dietary changes.

Dr. Uma Naidoo

Dr. Naidoo founded and directs the first hospital-based Nutritional Psychiatry Service in the United States. She is the Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) & Director of Nutritional Psychiatry at MGH Academy while serving on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.

She was considered Harvard’s Mood Food Expert and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Naidoo is also the national bestselling author of This Is Your Brain on Food.

In her book, she shows the cutting-edge science explaining the ways in which food contributes to our mental health and how a diet can help treat and prevent a wide range of psychological and cognitive health issues, from ADHD to anxiety, depression, OCD, and others.

Her newest book, Calm Your Mind with Food is available now.

In Calm Your Mind with Food, Dr. Naidoo shows readers a full-body approach to relieving anxiety. Her book presents research about ways anxiety is rooted in our brains and connected to our entire bodies, from our immune systems to our digestive systems. Accompanied by anti-anxiety recipes and meal plan guidelines, Dr. Naidoo shows us how to effectively use food and nutrition as an essential tool for calming the mind.

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