Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Harvard-dubbed “mood food expert” can speak to all things regarding nutrition and its ties to our mental wellbeing. Understanding the impact of our lifestyle and habits can literally help us to take our health into our own hands—and Dr. Uma Naidoo wants to help others get to that place of emotional freedom.
Food choices, in particular, can have a tremendous impact on our physical health. And among many other benefits, a proper diet can help people to lower their blood pressure, manage diabetes, and even reduce the risk of some cancers. As if that weren’t impressive enough already, there is a growing body of evidence that nutrition actually affects our mental health too! This makes sense if you think about it—the brain is an organ just like the heart or lungs, and the level of its functioning depends on the quality of nutrients you consume. For example, processed foods are linked to mood disorders while fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins boost brain power.
Within the United States, approximately one in five adults report experiencing mental illness, with some of the most common ailments involving anxiety and depression. Mental, neurological, or substance use disorders are present in at least 10% of the global population too.
What if we could be empowered to improve our quality of life, starting with our own daily diets? Green Living had the opportunity to connect with Dr. Uma Naidoo, a renowned nutritional psychiatrist whose career has been celebrated for her insight regarding the interconnectedness of our meals and general brain health. Author of This is Your Brain on Food and founder of the first hospital-based nutritional psychiatry service in the United States, Dr. Naidoo has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and HuffPost.
We interviewed Dr. Naidoo about her nutritional psychiatry journey, her thoughts on how to achieve a sustainable society, and the best foods for improving brain health. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with some clarifying details about your journey. What got you interested in nutritional psychiatry, in particular?
I think it started off in my childhood, because I grew up in a family, surrounded by food, a lot of nurturing and a lot of cooking, but also around medical doctors. So you know, the mind-body connection and all that was really just part of how I was raised. And when I began to study more about psychiatry and the medications and realize the side effects, it became obvious to me that we needed to really have more tools to offer patients, especially if you’re going to prescribe a medication.
I grew up in large, large family of Indian descent. And for that reason, there were many cooks in the kitchen. But much later in life when I moved away, I found a sort of joy and creative space in cooking that was also very mindful for me, and that was something that I wanted to explore as well. For me, this work is really about integrating all aspects of meditation, using and learning different forms of therapy, and also understanding nutritional strategies and how to improve them.
Are there certain foods that can treat mental illnesses, or do healthy foods generally just contribute to mental health?
So the answer to that question is that there are specific foods which can worsen mental health symptoms, and that have been tested through randomized control trials or different forms of research trials. Remember that nutritional psychiatry is not prescriptive, it’s really meant to be cooperating and improved upon. There are some simple suggestions that can actually help mental health. Certain foods are important to our mental health, like vegetables and fruits, because they bring fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties — all of which are extremely important for mental well-being because, again, you’re targeting improvement of the gut, and you are feeding the brain with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant rich foods. There are very targeted foods that I recommend for mental well-being. But because they are part of an overall health scope, they may actually also improve your physical health too.
How can people design a diet that keeps mental health and sustainability in mind?
One way to do that is through this mindful practice of how we’re eating. I’ve always suggested that with fruits and vegetables, when people can and if they can, should be composted. Always being mindful about what you cook with and what cooking utensils you use is important. I think it’s all about setting up your kitchen and yourself or your life for success by including simple changes to help get started.
Tell us about your latest book and how it can act as a guide for those unsure of how to approach nutrition?
My book was released in August of last year and is called, This Is Your Brain on Food. The book is really about how to fortify and shape your mental well-being, and is divided into chapters on different diagnoses. You don’t have to have a psychiatric diagnosis to read the book because nutrition is a low-hanging fruit that anyone can reach and try to improve on. What I have found is that people are especially appreciating the book to be a guide during the times of COVID, where people are doing a little bit more cooking at home.
For more information on Dr. Naidoo and her work, visit www.umanaidoomd.com.