How This Nutritional Psychiatrist Wants To De-Stigmatize & Improve Mental Health
As a nutritional psychiatrist, I deeply care about de-stigmatizing the topic of mental health and providing people with the resources they need for better mental well-being. In my experience, food and nutrition is often a helpful place to start the conversation and begin to address symptoms, as it can feel less daunting than other interventions.
Why I believe nutrition is a powerful starting point.
For many people, the topic of food and cooking brings up positive associations—like a favorite dish or a happy memory from childhood. In these cases, understanding and utilizing the impact of nutritious foods on mental well-being can be a wonderful strategy.
(Note: It's important to acknowledge there can be tough memories with food, too—such as going hungry, coping with an eating disorder, or having physical discomfort around certain foods due to a medical condition—and nutrition interventions may not be the best mental health starting point for these individuals.)
What's more, food is not only a positive, approachable square one; it's also extremely crucial to our well-being. As we now understand, our metabolic health is linked to our mental health—and eating for better brain health also improves our overall health.
It's additionally important to highlight the role of insulin, a key hormone that influences many of these metabolic processes. Every time our cells need to process sugar, they require insulin. A good insulin response by the receptors is called insulin sensitivity. The better our insulin sensitivity is, the better our overall health. Insulin sensitivity is also a good marker of metabolic health and, therefore, physical and mental health.
How food can support mental well-being.
One of the quickest ways to improve insulin sensitivity, metabolic health, and mental health is by focusing on what's at the end of our fork. It really starts with whole, real, unprocessed food. I advise filling your plate with these high-priority picks:
- Food that is rich in a rainbow of colors—this increases the biodiversity of plant foods, which helps support our gut, provide rich antioxidants, and offer anti-inflammatory effects.
- Leafy greens are rich in folate, which may help with mood and symptoms of depression1.
- Herbs and spices like turmeric, sage, cinnamon, and saffron.
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and miso. A recent study from Stanford published in Cell2 showed a fermented-food diet can increase microbiome diversity and lower markers of inflammation
- Healthy fats from foods like avocados, olive oil, walnuts, and chia seeds. Plus, wild-caught fatty fish like sardines and sockeye salmon because they contain omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fatty acid that is shown to improve insulin sensitivity as well as support brain health, lower anxiety, and improve mood.
Remember, metabolic health is a cornerstone of good overall health as well as mental health. As a nutritional psychiatrist and a chef, I have learned that for many people, starting with food is a great first step toward a path to better health. My personal story about how food changed my life, my approach to food especially for mental health, and recipes are found in my book This Is Your Brain on Food.
Uma Naidoo, M.D. is a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author of This Is Your Brain on Food (An Indispensible Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More). She is currently the Founder and Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the first US clinic of its kind where she consults on nutritional interventions for the psychiatrically and medically ill. Naidoo is also a culinary instructor at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. She writes for Harvard Health and Psychology Today and has just completed a unique video cooking series for the MGH Academy, which teaches nutritional psychiatry using culinary techniques in the kitchen.