A psychiatrist, nutritionist, and trained chef explains.

By Lynn Andriani
September 28, 2020
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Bryan Gardner

Spoiler alert: Eating a bowl of ice cream when you're sad may make you feel better in the moment, but not for long. The same goes for a chocolate bar when you’re stressed, or a bag of chips when you’re anxious. We know these foods won't really help our moods, and, on some level, it's comforting to know that reaching for unhealthy foods when we're feeling down is natural and normal. Still, the flip side—that eating certain foods can actually alter your mood for the better—is even more intriguing. That's the thinking behind a new book by psychiatrist, nutritionist, and trained chef Dr. Uma Naidoo. She believes that our diets can bring us clarity, calmness, energy, and happiness, and in her book, This Is Your Brain on Food ($25.20, amazon.com), she dives into food's amazing capabilities to impact our mental state.

The urge to eat unhealthy foods when we’re fearful or worried is something we're hard-wired for, Dr. Naidoo says. It goes back to a survival instinct—when "tigers or wolves are coming after us, we have a tendency to crave things that comfort." Our stressed brains become hypersensitive to high fat, high sugar foods, and once they get a dose of those foods, they want more. And women are even more susceptible to eating unhealthy food when depressed, Dr. Naidoo explains. The thing is, though, science (and, frankly, our own experience) shows that sugary or fried foods don't actually help us feel better when we're in a funk (also on the "no" list: high-glycemic load carbs, artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, and foods with added nitrates). So, what should we eat?

One snack Dr. Naidoo highly suggests reaching for is yogurt. There's a major connection between your gut and your brain, she says. When we make poor food choices, our gut can suffer, causing bad bacteria to outgrow good bacteria. The result: negative health effects, inflammation and, potentially, depression. On the other hand, eating foods packed with probiotics and prebiotics can make a significant difference in gut health. A few ideas she loves: yogurt with active cultures, tempeh, miso, and sauerkraut, as well as beans, oats, bananas, and berries. In her book, Dr. Naidoo talks about patients of hers who've incorporated these ingredients in their diets and report feeling brighter, less foggy, and less fatigued.

Dr. Naidoo is also a fan of foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which lower inflammatory markers and protect the neurons in the brain from excessive inflammation. Cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna are one of the best sources for omega-3; there are also plant-based sources, such as chia and flax seeds, along with sea vegetables like algae.

Finally, Dr. Naidoo recommends turmeric for anxiety. This yellow spice has been shown to adjust brain chemistry and protect our brain cells against toxic damage that leads to depression. Add a touch of it to soups and stews, or to smoothies. You can also make hot tea with it or sprinkle it into salad dressing. One important note about turmeric: Dr. Naidoo says that combining it with black pepper helps your body absorb it better, so whenever you use turmeric, add a bit of pepper, too.

Of course, Dr. Naidoo acknowledges that food can't relieve serious forms of depression. Still, making some changes in your diet can yield real results. And, perhaps just as importantly, know that there's no need to beat yourself up if you backslide with the occasional stress bag of chips. Dr. Naidoo urges us to not judge ourselves if we do make unhealthy choices. "Rather, focus on how you can move forward by embracing healthy foods."


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