Are you truly what you eat? This age-old adage finds substantial backing in decades of research, emphasizing the profound influence of nutrition on our health. While it’s widely acknowledged that healthy food choices can increase overall life expectancy and reduce the risk of various medical conditions, including heart disease and cancer, the scope of the benefits extends beyond physical health. Nutrition plays a pivotal role in shaping our mental well-being, impacting our risk of brain-related conditions, cognitive function, mood, and overall mental health.
However, navigating the labyrinth of dietary choices for optimal brain health can be challenging. Many of us have heard about “brain foods” like blueberries, salmon, nuts, and leafy greens, but what exactly makes them beneficial? Do they safeguard our neurons? Enhance our cognitive abilities? Reduce stress levels? Elevate our happiness quotient? Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, has dedicated her career to unraveling the link between food and mental health. Serving as the director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Naidoo is a renowned expert in this burgeoning field, often referred to as the “intersection between nutrition and mental health.”
Dr. Naidoo recently shared her insights on the relationship between food and mood with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta on his podcast, Chasing Life. While she admits that we aren’t at the stage of prescribing specific quantities of blueberries or ounces of salmon to improve mood, she underscores the need to move away from the Standard American Diet (aptly abbreviated as SAD). This diet, characterized by calorie-dense, nutrient-poor processed foods laden with refined carbs, unhealthy fats, and added sugars, and lacking in fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and clean protein, is a significant contributor to declining mental health.
SAD Diet and its Impact
Dr. Naidoo emphasizes that the term “SAD” accurately describes this dietary pattern, as it not only affects physical health but also has profound implications for mental well-being. Ultraprocessed foods, a staple of the SAD diet, are engineered to manipulate our brain, making it difficult to resist overeating.
Tips for Nourishing Your Brain and Enhancing Your Mood
To harness the power of nutrition for a healthier mind and improved mood, Dr. Naidoo shares five essential tips:
1. Eat Whole Foods to Be Whole
Dr. Naidoo advocates that 80% of your diet should consist of real, whole, fiber-rich foods, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, lower-glycemic whole grains, healthy fats, and high-quality, well-sourced protein. The remaining 20% can offer some flexibility, allowing you to indulge occasionally. This approach strikes a balance between dietary discipline and enjoyment, ensuring that you receive the necessary nutrients without the guilt associated with rigidity.
2. Enjoy a Rainbow of Food Choices
The oft-repeated advice of consuming a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits holds true. Dr. Naidoo recommends “eating the rainbow” to optimize nutrient intake. Different colored plant foods contain distinct brain-boosting nutrients, such as plant polyphenols. While she encourages the inclusion of various vegetables, her top picks are cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, legumes, lentils, and beans. She also emphasizes the importance of choosing natural sugars from fruits over processed sweets.
3. Lean into Green Food
The color green takes center stage in Dr. Naidoo’s recommendations. Greens, like spinach, kale, arugula, spring mix, and dandelion greens, are rich in folate, a B vitamin essential for neurotransmitter production, including norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. Folate has been linked to reduced depressive symptoms and improved cognition, contributing to a happier and clearer mind. Dr. Naidoo suggests consuming 4 to 6 cups of greens daily, with arugula being a notable choice for its nutrient density.
4. Develop Self-Awareness of Your Diet
Mindfulness is key to mental well-being, according to Dr. Naidoo. Pay attention to how different foods make you feel both mentally and physically. If a particular food leaves you feeling unwell or hinders your performance, consider exploring better dietary choices. Your body’s response to food can serve as a valuable guide in making healthier decisions.
5. Avoid Anxiety-Triggering Foods
Inflammation, a root cause of stress and low mood, can be exacerbated by certain dietary choices. Dr. Naidoo highlights that added/refined sugars, processed foods, and industrial seed oils like soy, corn, and grapeseed can induce gut inflammation, leading to mental overwhelm, stress, and anxiety. Replacing nutrient-poor foods typical of the standard Western diet with an abundance of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats (especially omega-3s), and proteins can help calm the mind and alleviate stress within the body.
In conclusion, the connection between nutrition and mental health is an emerging field that holds great promise. While specific dietary prescriptions for mood enhancement are still in development, adhering to a diet rich in whole foods, a vibrant array of fruits and vegetables, and mindful eating can significantly contribute to a happier and healthier mind. By making informed dietary choices, you can nourish your brain and elevate your mood, promoting overall well-being.