I'm A Nutritional Psychiatrist & This Is What I Eat In A Day For Stellar Brain Health
At mbg, we believe food is medicine—it's not the only medicine, per se, but food does play a huge role in overall well-being. This is especially true when it comes to supporting brain health: "There are certain nutrients throughout history and psychiatry we've just known are important in terms of mental health," nutritional psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, M.D., says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
So what are those special nutrients? Find them sprinkled below, in Ramsey's personal menu.
"Does dark chocolate need to be your treat, or can it be something that you have for breakfast?" Ramsey asks. He favors the latter (sign us up!): In fact, he says, raw cacao makes a stellar brain-healthy breakfast. "Those flavanols [in cacao] increase blood flow to the brain. They get involved with the microbiome... They are involved with short-term memory and in the areas where neurogenesis (new brain cell growth) happens in the brain."
That's why for Ramsey's morning meal, he likes to whip up a batch of cacao buckwheat pancakes. "It's a buckwheat pancake, so there's more nutrient density," he notes. (Buckwheat features tons of antioxidants, and it's the only pseudocereal that contains the powerful flavonoid rutin.) "There are oats in there; there are cacao nibs in there; there are pumpkin seeds in there. So it's a really nutrient-dense little disk."
For lunch, nutrient-dense vegetables are the name of the game. Ramsey recommends veggies like red peppers, kale, and other leafy greens, as well as red beans. Specifically, red peppers contain high amounts of capsaicin (that's what gives the pepper its red pigment), which research has found can reduce depressive symptoms. Leafy greens, like kale, contain tons of fiber, and one study even linked eating these greens with a lower risk of dementia, presumably due to their source of folate, vitamin E, and carotenoids. Red adzuki beans are chock-full of antioxidants and fiber, and research shows they have anti-inflammatory properties as well.
Of course, we can't forget about the almighty avocado: "Real fatty fruit that's also a unique color, you don't see a lot of fat vegetables in that way," says Ramsey. "The brain is made of fat, and I'm looking for really clean fats that are going to bring me unique colors or unique nutrients, and avocados deliver on that." Plus, avo also contains fiber and magnesium, which has been shown to be helpful for depression.
Chuck all of those healthy veggies into a salad or grain bowl, and you've got a nutrient-packed lunch to keep you satisfied throughout the day.
For a brain-healthy snack, Ramsey is a fan of nuts: "I love those as a good snack because they're this nice mix of fiber, fats, and protein," he says. "That's everything that makes you feel full, and there's a lot of minerality in nuts, and they're also great for our microbiome because they have so much fiber."
He mentions power players like cashews, almonds, and pumpkin seeds—all of which have varying mineral and antioxidant content. He tends to lean toward pumpkin seeds (they're also in his breakfast!) as these tiny seeds contain significant amounts of magnesium—which, again, has been shown to be helpful for depression. They also contain choline, which happens to be the precursor chemical for acetylcholine—one of the most fundamental neurotransmitters.
Ramsey touts the importance of high-quality seafood. "It's a great protein source, and it's great for your brain." Specifically, he notes wild salmon, anchovies, and sardines: Salmon, as you may know, contains omega-3s—research shows that these fatty acids can decrease stress, and another study found that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids can even help promote a healthy emotional balance and positive mood.
Anchovies and sardines also contain those precious omega-3s, especially if they're preserved in high-quality olive oil. Plus, smaller tinned fish are quite rich in protein, as well as vitamins B12, D, and A.
"There are a lot of ways to prepare and enjoy seafood," Ramsey notes. He's partial to a sardine gnocchi (a dish he calls Gnocchi à la Glenda, according to the Aspen Brain Institute). In a cast-iron skillet, he coats cooked potato gnocchi with garlic-steeped olive oil, lemon zest, pine nuts, tinned sardines, and tomato sauce. "I've been dishing that out a lot in our house," he tells us.
"How I think about food as a psychiatrist really begins with nutrients," Ramsey explains. That said, tons of foods might not have made it to Ramsey's personal menu—but that doesn't mean they don't boast some of the same healthy nutrients (magnesium, vitamin B12, carotenoids, and so on). At the end of the day, "All nutrition is important," he says. "Every neuron needs lots of fuel and lots of nutrition."