Dr. Uma Naidoo has changed the way we eat for the better. With his worldwide bestseller This is your brain when it comes to food, a nutritional psychiatrist outlined the connection between food and mood and what we should be putting on our plates to overcome depression, OCD, anxiety and more. Simply put, Dr. Naidoo highlighted the power of food in a way that has never been seen before.
Now Dr. Naidoo is back Calm Your Mind With Food: The Revolutionary Guide to Managing Your Anxiety. In this insightful book, he delves even deeper into the most vexing mental health issues of our time, revealing how anxiety is connected to the brain and gut, as well as solutions that don’t require prescription drugs. As Dr. Naidoo writes, the ability to fight anxiety should not be reserved only for those who have access to good health care.
Dr. Naidoo, who offers personal anecdotes about his upbringing and nutritional journey in his new book, never backstabs or judges. His wisdom to soothe our minds with food is comprehensive. My work is about equality, he says Sunday newspaperrespecting what you choose to eat, but adjusting it for your best brain health.
DISCUSSION WITH DR. UMA NAIDOO
You write that you feel compassion and care for all the people who are suffering from anxiety today. What have you seen?
I don’t think people understand how maddening anxiety is. Lancet has published a paper stating that anxiety has increased by 25 percent [since 2020], and this is after being the leading state of mental health. Covid always revealed a mental health crisis. In the early 2020s, Zoloft became in short supply in the United States, reflecting new diagnoses of people with mood disorders, especially anxiety. It has been a difficult time for people.
That’s why it’s so important that everyone has ways to feel better. Globally, more than 70 percent of people with mental health problems do not receive treatment from health care personnel. When you put all this together, you realize that there must be more solutions. And a textbook diagnosis of anxiety using the DSM-5-TR [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]although it is the standard handbook used by mental health professionals, it does not cover enough people and all people.
What are the misconceptions about anxiety?
One misconception is that anxiety is bad and that it must be something we fix or lean on and use to push us forward. Another is that anxiety can only be cured with medication or therapy. Many people think If it’s anxiety, I have to take medicine. And while I really believe in therapy, and certainly for some of my patients, drugs can save a life, but they are not the only cure. I have seen in my clinical work that a good number of people know how to use nutritional psychiatry and a lifestyle plan that includes breathing work, movement, exercise, hydration, healthy diet adjustments and meal preparation. All of these things really help reduce anxiety.
Talk to us about the connection between immunity, anxiety and the gut. What is critical to understand?
People don’t necessarily associate these body parts. The gut and the brain are connected, which I cover in my first book. In my new book, I explain again the high-level connection between the gut and the brain, and I also include this second connection: immunity. Our immune system is the system that protects our body, and about 70 percent of it is in the gut. This means that these immune cells interact with the food we eat. So it is important to know that the immune system and the gut are connected. I felt like this interaction hadn’t really been talked about and was therefore missing for a lot of people.
I want people to understand the basics of science. They can skip it in this book and go straight to parts two and three on foods and interventions. But when you have a basic understanding of how this all works in the body, and you think, This affects my immune system, this affects my anxiety, and then you want make [dietary and lifestyle] changes, it’s really important.
Please provide us with a preview of your book “The Anxiety Plan”. Which foods should we tackle first?
The Mediterranean diet is the best place to start. It covers many basic principles to lean on. It’s the combination of these foods that can be powerful. Many people have heard of the Mediterranean diet before, but I added recipes to the book to make it more comprehensive and interesting. For example, I combine Asian spices with Mediterranean dishes and Asian dishes with Mediterranean spices. This is a way to broaden our view of the Mediterranean diet and make people realize that it can be so much more.
How should we feel about what we eat?
When I think of edible foods, I talk about building a plate in nutritional psychiatry. To do this, I want people to think about the following:
Add as many plants and vegetables to the plate as possible. Aim for these to be a kaleidoscope of colors and textures.
Then add about a palm-sized amount of healthy protein. This healthy protein could be fried tofu, cauliflower steak, chicken breast or steak, ideally grass-fed if available to you.
Next, add healthy fats. This could be olive oil to dress a green salad on a plate that is part of that vegetable section.
Then add a healthy, complex carbohydrate. This can be a small serving of quinoa to get healthy grams of protein and fiber.
That’s how I’d like people to think about building plates. Also dial in the spices and herbs and change the vegetables so you can always make this work for you.
You believe that perfectionism and limitations can be harmful. This is probably a relief, as eating healthy can often make us think it’s all or nothing.
This is absolutely correct. More people eat meat than not right now in this country. More and more people drink alcohol; more people drink coffee. These foods and food groups that tend to get demonized really need to be accepted. We have to find a way to spend them and not feel like we’re doing something wrong. Yes, some of them have problems, like dairy. But I don’t mean eat dairy every day and make it your only source of protein or probiotics. i tell you butter enjoy dairy products in certain portions. You can mix it with cinnamon or blueberries. You can do it in a way that means you can embrace it and follow a flexible, open-ended diet full of whole foods.
I feel very strongly that when you hear you can’t eat something, it’s because of a restrictive mentality that is very exclusionary for people. I believe the only way to help this country out of the nutritional mess we are in and ease our anxiety is to find a way forward by being inclusive. It’s about saying, “Okay, take the steak, but how can you modify it to ease your anxiety?”
Uma Naidoo, MD, is a board-certified Harvard nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutritional biologist. He is the founder and director of the first and only hospital-based nutrition and metabolic psychiatry service in the United States at Mass General Hospital. He serves as director of nutritional psychiatry at the MGH Academy and is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. Read more at atumanaidoomd.com.
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