Healing Your Brain with Food – Q&A with Dr. Uma Naidoo

Healing Your Brain with Food – Q&A with Dr. Uma Naidoo

By The BroglieBox Team
10 min read

We had the pleasure of interviewing Harvard-trained psychiatrist and nutrition expert Dr. Uma Naidoo. “Dr. Naidoo draws on cutting-edge research to explain the many ways in which food contributes to our mental health, and shows how a sound diet can help treat and prevent a wide range of psychological and cognitive health issues, from ADHD to anxiety to OCD.”

BroglieBox: You have a book out titled “This is Your Brain on Food” – is it really true that food can fight depression, anxiety, trauma, OCD, ADHD, and improve mood?

Dr. Uma Naidoo: The short answer is yes. We researched and reviewed over 700 scientific research studies, then refined these to about 550 which are included as resources at the end of the book. We made this information easily digestible to the reader! Nutritional Psychiatry is not prescriptive but offers guidelines based on the current scientific evidence to help shape how people eat in order to feel emotionally better.

BB: Are there any “must have” foods that help boost your mood and lessen anxiety?

UN: Baked Salmon or Tofu topped with Almond-Zucchini Pesto. (Ingredients: Salmon fillet or ½ block of firm tofu, ¼ teaspoon sea salt, sprinkle of ground black pepper, 1 tablespoon olive oil. To prepare: 1) Preheat oven to 350°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. 2) Season salmon or tofu with salt and pepper, and brush with oil. 3) Place on baking sheet and bake for 8 -12 minutes depending on the size of the salmon pieces, or until salmon is cooked through. For tofu – you can either pan fry or bake in oven. The Pesto Ingredients: 9 ounces small zucchini that are trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, 1 cup packed fresh spinach leaves, ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan, ¼ cup almonds, 1 cloves garlic that are coarsely chopped, ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, and Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. To prepare: Combine the zucchini, spinach, Parmesan, almonds, garlic and onion in the bowl of a food processor and process until coarsely chopped. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the oil and process until emulsified. Season with the lemon zest and some salt and pepper and pulse a few times.

Baked Salmon with Almond-Zucchini Pesto shown with a side of zucchini noodles.

BB: What about foods to avoid for anxiety?

UN: Start off with cleaning up your dietary habits. Clean up your pantry and cupboards and start to purchase healthier options. Cut back on sugary drinks, candy, store bought pastries and cakes, and highly processed foods. Embrace whole foods: for example, eat an orange or other citrus fruit, but avoid the store-bought fruit juices as the added sugars work against you. Pay attention if you are sensitive to caffeine. Drink enough water, 50% of your weight in ounces daily. So, if you are 120-lbs, that’s at least 60 ounces (almost 8 cups) daily! Include whole grains, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds. A balanced diet and regular meals will also help balance your anxiety by keeping your blood glucose at an even level. This is a large way in which how and what you eat can help you.

BB: What are some initial steps someone could take when re-evaluating and revamping their diet?

UN: Try not to change too many things at the same time, as these habit changes will be more difficult to sustain. Write down a few days of all the meals and snacks you ate. Are there patterns you observe? Then try to course correct by adding back healthier options. For example, if you are snacking on lots of chips and tortilla chips. Think about trying out oven roasted kale chips or air fryer sweet potato fries with dinner once a week.

BB: Certain foods have emotional ties and/or memories associated with them. Eating “comfort food” is real, especially for those experiencing mental health challenges. Can you give some advice for those having a hard time “breaking up” with certain foods due to the emotional tie?

UN: According to psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Dr. Srini Pillay, author of “Tinker, Dabble, Doodle Try: Unlock the power of the unfocused mind”, emotional overeating is a powerful habit that is difficult to change. When you are caught in this “habit hell”, any attempt at change causes brain chaos called cognitive dissonance.  The brain’s conflict detector goes haywire. To stop this chaos, there are several things you can do, all of which activate the left frontal cortex:
1) Take general goal e.g. “give up foods that you love”—change to a specific goal “give up hamburgers and hot dogs daily and start tomorrow.” This activates your brain so you can stay focused on your goals. 
2) Also, make 2 columns. In the first, write down all of the advantages of emotional eating. In the second, write down all of the advantages of giving up emotional eating. Do this until your brain “buys” that you have more advantages of giving these foods up.    
3) Use mindfulless.
4) Stress traps you in habit circuits in your brain so work or reducing your stress.

Order Dr. Naidoo’s Book Here!

BB: Do you have any “simple swap” recommendations – can you list some of those here for someone who might just be getting started to make their diet healthier? Example: carrots and hummus instead of chips and salsa

UN: Yes…
– Cannellini bean dip with veggies instead of bread or crackers
– Switching to still or sparkling filtered water with added citrus and or berries and giving up soda or diet soda
– Build a daily large green salad(romaine/arugula/kale/spinach), then add chopped veggies, a sprinkle of walnuts/almonds, sprinkle of pumpkin seeds, a piece of chopped avocado and dress with a squeeze of fresh lemon. You can add a lean protein if desired.
– A 1-sheet pan meal using the oven to roast veggies along with a protein of your choice (tofu/tempeh/chicken breast/turkey)

BB: If someone is a student, how important is nutrition to mental health, productivity, and stress relief?

UN: The brain uses more energy than any other human organ in the body so eating regular whole food meals is super important. If you are eating a regular healthy balanced diet your glucose will also be on an even keel and you will not have the yo-yo effect that comes when we eat refined carbs which impact insulin. A healthy whole foods diet will also help regulate your bacteria, your immunity and your overall mental health.

BB: Do you have any simple, healthy snack ideas for students (high school and college)?

UN: Celery sticks with almond butter, chia pudding snacks made with 3 simple ingredients and topped with chopped fruit or berries, avocado hummus with jicama and carrot sticks, and ¼ cup serving of mixed raw almonds, walnuts. Extra dark chocolate chips and chopped dates too!

In her book, This Is Your Brain on Food, Dr. Uma Naidoo draws on cutting-edge research to explain the many ways in which food contributes to our mental health, and shows how a sound diet can help treat and prevent a wide range of psychological and cognitive health issues. We highly recommend that you pre-order it today!

Dr. Uma Naidoo, as described by Michelin-starred chef David Bouley, is the world’s first “triple threat” in the food and medicine space: a Harvard board-certified psychiatrist, professional chef, and a trained nutrition specialist. Dr. Naidoo founded and directs the first hospital-based Nutritional Psychiatry Service in the United States. She is also the Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) & the Director of Nutritional Psychiatry at MGH Academy while serving on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. She was named Harvard’s Mood-Food expert and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal.