A Nutritional Psychiatrist On How To *Actually* Enjoy Healthy Eating

Psychiatrist and Nutritional Expert By Uma Naidoo, M.D.
Psychiatrist and Nutritional Expert
Uma Naidoo, M.D. is a board-certified psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutrition specialist.
Happy asian people eating a healthy meal

Graphic by mbg Creative x MAAHOO STUDIO / Stocksy

In 2021, we're focusing on joy. After the year we've had, cultivating and celebrating small moments of happiness as they come has never felt more cathartic, life-affirming, and essential to lasting well-being. In the coming weeks, we're going to laugh, experience new things, and revamp stale aspects of daily life. Come back each day for a new "Resolution Joy" installment, where you'll find inspiration and expert-backed advice, free classes, and—dare we say?—fun activities.

I was listening to a podcast recently when three words resonated in my ears: "Food is life." For me, this simple phrase spoke to the importance of my field, nutritional psychiatry. The message was clear: What, when, and why you eat is critically important; but above all else, it's essential to respect and enjoy your food.

So many people are preoccupied with calories, grams of protein, or whether to become vegan. As a nutritional psychiatrist, I remain diet agnostic, especially for patients who seek to improve their mental well-being. In my experience, a healthy eating style is less about sticking to a specific diet and more about simply doing your best to make better food choices. So whether my patients are carnivores or vegans, I remain open to helping them eat better for their mental health.

It's important to remember that nutrition is a marathon and not a sprint—any positive habit you adopt is helping you on your way to better overall mental and physical health. Everyone can elevate their food game, and we all have to start somewhere. 

Now, back to that "food is life" sentiment: One of the best steps you can take toward healthier eating is finding more joy in food and cooking. It's not challenging to improve your experience with food—it merely requires paying better attention to your body and mind. Here are a few things that help personally ground me in the joy of food and nutrition, which may benefit you, too:

1. Make cooking work for you.

For me cooking is a sacred space—it enables me to expand my creativity and decompress from the day. I found cooking later in life, and for me, the admiration happened naturally. If you dislike cooking, however, I suggest trying out a super simple recipe to get you started (think a veggie tofu, egg scramble, or even a simple slow-cooker chili). You may be surprised to find you want to cook even more.

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2. Prep as much as possible.

I try to plan my meals ahead of time as often as possible. That way, I can tackle some prep a few days in advance, to make cooking less stressful. For example, I'll make chia pudding, mix up salad dressing, chop fresh veggies, wash berries, make winter soups in an Instant Pot, or pressure cook lentils for dal—simple steps that help lower my stress and place food in the joy category of my brain.

My food shopping and prep day is Sunday afternoons; it's generally a two- or three-hour time commitment. To make cooking less of a chore, I also like to be prepared with a few options to make during the week, which helps lower the stress, too.

I keep my weekday cooking super simple. As long as there are healthy whole foods on my plate, I'm good to go. If I want to tackle a more complex recipe, I save that for the weekend, when there's more time to experiment. 

3. Practice gratitude.

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I remember that I am blessed to have the food on my plate—there are so many who are hungry. When you have a plate of food in front of you, try expressing simple silent gratitude to the universe.

During the pandemic, I decided to start saying grace again before eating—a habit I was raised with but that had slipped away. I actually found food more joyful when I embraced prayer. If this has meaning to you, try it out. Simple gratitude connects you back to the experience of your meal.

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4. Take time for mindful meals.

Rather than eating my meals standing up and on the run as I did during my residency days, I now set aside time for meals and make sure I am seated at the dining table. I enjoy setting the table and making that a physical space where I eat. Even during work-from-home times, creating a little corner of your table to eat meals is important to your mental well-being.

I find that making time for my meals also encourages more mindful eating. So rather than mindlessly chewing and inhaling food, I savor the flavor and texture and enjoy dinner conversations with my family.

Also, instead of watching TV or looking at my phone, I eat without gadgets. I've found food is even tastier and my digestion is calmer when I stick to this practice. I've also noticed I feel satiated with less food than when I'm eating mindlessly and not paying attention to my body cues.

5. Keep a clean kitchen.

I follow my meal by cleaning up my kitchen space. That way, it's neat when I get up in the morning for a welcome cup of home-brewed coffee. The lack of clutter in the morning helps my mind feel clear and prepared for the day, plus it brings me joy.

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6. Create calming rituals.

I end the evening trying to wind down for bed, with a calming hot beverage. My go-to beverages are chamomile tea, lavender tea, or gold chai.

The warmth prepares me for bed, and the experience of slowly sipping helps my mind slow down, too. I take this to reflect on my day, releasing any negatives and focusing on the joyful positives.

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Uma Naidoo, M.D.
Uma Naidoo, M.D.
Uma Naidoo, M.D. is a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author...
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Uma Naidoo, M.D.
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Uma Naidoo, M.D. is a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef,...
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