Sunday Scaries

5 diet tweaks that can help mental health, according to a psychiatrist

An interview with nutritional psychiatrist Dr. Uma Naidoo.

Dr. Uma Naidoo is a psychiatrist, professional chef, and founded the first hospital-based service in nutritional psychiatry in the United States. She's also the director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, while serving on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, and the author of the upcoming This Is Your Brain on Food.

In the following interview, Naidoo spoke with Inverse about the relationship between mental health and diet, foods that can help alleviate anxiety, and how much water we should all really be drinking.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What inspired you to create your nutritional psychiatry clinic — and why do you think this type of clinic did not exist before?

I was inspired to create this clinic based on the experience of my patients -- they were often struggling with difficult side effects of needed prescription medications. Popular diets had failed them.

As a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutrition scientist, the nexus of my education left me well poised to offer this type of clinic. This did not exist before because, as medical doctors, there is a real gap in our nutrition education. For example, we counsel patients about diet and hypertension, but food and mental health are not being addressed.

My point of view on food is that eating, and our nutrition, are very basic human needs. [Food] is a common ground for an easy health intervention because we all consume food. Food is pleasurable! Therefore, restricting oneself is not helpful and does not lead to a sustainable habit change. Lifestyle changes, on the other hand, that are made gradually and in a personalized way, may truly impact small changes that are sustainable.

This type of clinic has not existed in this form before, as many MDs don’t study nutrition, and we tend not to think of a recipe to share with a patient. My unique niche is my training and background to use nutritional psychiatry in an integrated way.

Add vegetables to your diet for added fiber.

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When it comes to the relationship between food and mental health, it can be difficult to sort out fact from fiction due to how widely the topic is discussed online. Do you have any general advice for people who want to use their diet to benefit their mental health but aren’t sure where to start?

Step one is to evaluate what you are eating and start to make small tweaks that you can sustain. Here are only a few from the list of recommendations I offer my patients:

  • Eat whole foods — reach for the orange instead of the orange juice.
  • Adding five servings of fruit and vegetables is a good start.
  • Building up your daily meals with vegetables adds fiber, vitamins, and minerals [to your diet] with few calories if prepared healthily.
  • A bevy of berries are my go-to fruit for their polyphenol content, which makes them rich in antioxidants.
  • Drinking enough water to maintain hydration. I suggest eight to 13 glasses a day, with each glass being eight ounces, based on the recommendations from the Nutrition Source at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
  • Include plant-based proteins in your daily diet and snacks (chickpeas, beans, nuts, and seeds are an easy way to start).

What are some of the foods that can specifically help reduce anxiety?

One of the many foods I suggest is including magnesium-rich foods into your daily diet, as part of a balanced meal plan. These include: almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, black beans, spinach, lean poultry, and edamame.

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