Mental Comfort Food: 4 Ways Nutritional Psychiatry Can Help Alleviate Anxiety
When we think of comfort food, gooey baked goods, hearty soups, and cheesy casseroles may come to mind. But ask nutritional psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, M.D., what foods he thinks can actually comfort our mental health, and the list becomes a bit—shall we say?—different.
"Nutritional psychiatry is how we can modify inflammation in the brain nutritionally," he tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. "With that, we want the food categories with the most nutrients for brain health." And, sadly to say, those food categories don't usually include sweets.
Here are four ways to eat the nutritional psychiatry way, in order to help alleviate anxiety—because even after COVID-19 is behind us, optimizing our mental health still matters:
Maximize nutrient density.
Ramsey wants us to maximize the nutrient density of our food, so we can truly get the most out of each calorie we eat. A comforting thought, as you might be a bit more conservative with portion size these days. According to Ramsey, you can get the most bang for your buck by eating brain-healthy, vitamin-rich foods.
His list is as follows: "Seafood, greens, nuts, and beans, and a little dark chocolate."
Sounds simple, yes? These five foods are the basis of an optimal mental health diet, says Ramsey, and contain the gut-healthy, brain-healthy nutrients we need to reduce brain inflammation.
And even though you might not be able to go to the grocery store as often as you'd like, you can still stock up on these brain-healthy goodies: "We have wild shrimp, scallops, flounder, and wild salmon in our freezer," he says.
As for mindful snacking, Ramsey says sticking to nuts is best. "You get the satiating goodness of a crunchy, satisfying food while avoiding sugar spikes, which sure aren't helpful during this time," he tells me. So instead of mindlessly munching on potato chips (while it might feel comforting in the moment), these nutrient-rich foods will be a way better "comfort food" option down the line.
Cut back on alcohol if you're feeling anxious.
Full disclosure: Ramsey doesn't necessarily say that you should cut out alcohol (drinking a little more than usual during this time is normal, he says). However, be mindful about how much you're imbibing—if you notice you're drinking every single day, perhaps take a couple of days off and see how you feel. You never know; your anxiety could be heightened due to the homemade cocktails.
"Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so if you take a couple of days off, it might help your mood. That doesn't mean you have to, but just be aware of how you're feeling," he says.
Looking for a way to wind down at 5 p.m. (or earlier? we don't judge)? "Replace alcohol with kombucha," Ramsey says. "And if you're going to move away from alcohol, do it intentionally. Have a plan to create delicious mocktails at 5 p.m." That way, you can wind down from a busy work-from-home day or have a virtual happy hour without missing out on the fun.
Be mindful at the table.
Rather than shoveling down your food, Ramsey says staying mindful as you eat can help you feel more at ease. This means everything from being present at the table to being mindful about the way you chew (yes, really!).
"When you're anxious you don't really chew as much," Ramsey says. "You get into your head. Be present at the table with those you love and with your food as you chew, and you're going to get more nourishment."
In fact, he explains that being more mindful at the table can allow your body to absorb nutrients better (which can help you give your brain more of those healthy nutrients). "When you rush, you don't really give the enzymes in your gut the surface area to absorb the nutrients in your food. You absorb the nutrients by eating it properly and enjoying it," Ramsey says.
So, easy does it—chew slowly and truly be present at the table. With an at-home quarantine and nowhere to go, there's no reason to be in a rush anyway.
Add some playfulness.
According to Ramsey, play isn't just for the kids. Although, including them in your creativity is a great way to engage your kids and help them feel less anxious, too.
"Get them in the kitchen, have them chop up some veggies, and play 'restaurant.' It will teach them to expand their palate, to try something new. It really is a creative and healing place," says Ramsey.
It seems like in the Ramsey-approved household, playing with food is a good thing. It also helps parents delegate cooking tasks, which can become boring or frustrating after a long period of time at home. "Because you're all cooped up at home, it's important to share the load," he says.
With Ramsey's tips, hopefully the words "comfort food" take on a whole new meaning. While some foods might feel good to us in the moment, it's important to nourish our mental health with foods and activities that help optimize brain health in the long term. As Ramsey likes to say, "One in five people have a mental illness, but we all have mental health. We have to work on it." Coronavirus, or not.