We’re excited to introduce our new partner, Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist and national best-selling author of This Is Your Brain On Food. Dr. Uma is a pioneer in nutritional psychiatry where she explores food’s impact on mental well-being, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to have the opportunity to share her expertise with the Rae community.
We understand that you’ve been passionate about food and cooking for quite some time. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came to be?
I grew up in a large South Asian family surrounded by a lot of food, love and science.
Having skipped out of preschool to spend that time with my maternal gran to whom my book is dedicated.
I am still not sure how I managed to skip out of preschool to instead spend that time with her. My mom is a double boarded physician, and since she was busy working during the day, I enjoyed that time with my grandparents. I would watch and help her prepare meals from scratch every day. We’d pick fresh vegetables from the garden, and I grew to fully appreciate delicious food but also understand the source of eating healthy. A big part of this was also the tantalizing flavors from the delicious array of spices such as cumin, coriander, capsaicin, ginger, garlic and of course turmeric. We had a daily ritual of making what is now called a golden latte, but to us was a warming and delicious start to the day. Much of this I absorbed without realizing it. But on weekends mom would teach me how to bake as she recognized my love for science, and baking is all about that!
I carried these deep set traditions with me even though I never learned how to actually cook! As with many large South Asian families, my gran, aunts, older cousins and my mom were always in the kitchen so I was a delighted taste tester! When I moved away and had to learn how to cook, it was a very interesting experience. I found myself feeling deeply rooted to my culture and family through my experiments in the kitchen. It also became a mindful and creative space for me, my culinary canvas so to speak. So this passion and love for healthy but delicious food really began in my toddler days!
How do you describe nutritional psychiatry, and what drew you to become a leading expert in this field of work?
Nutritional Psychiatry is a field that utilizes evidence based dietary and lifestyle practices to improve brain health, mental fitness and emotional well-being in conjunction with traditional psychiatric treatment or medication, when needed. Because traditional mental health care tends to treat symptoms, rather than addressing the root cause of these symptoms, and because not all patients are effectively treated through psychiatric medications, Nutritional Psychiatry offers additional tools for managing symptoms of mental well-being.
Because of the intimate relationship between the gut and the brain, the practices of this field focus on amending the diet in a way that improves gut health and provides the brain with an array of nutrients necessary for promoting optimal brain function and improved moods. In addition to being a board certified Psychiatrist, I am also a trained chef and nutrition specialist. From my early days with my South Asian grandparents I also tapped into my cultural heritage, having learned yoga and meditation too. Early in my medical career, I noticed that most patients who were struggling to achieve improved mental health also had several poor dietary habits and wondered if there was a connection. Interpreting simple nutrition information provided an understanding of a need to make meaningful and sustainable lifestyle changes.By using an integrated, holistic and functional approach to psychiatry, I found that working with these patients to improve their diet while also working toward improved mental health was an incredibly effective means of symptom management. Food as medicine is a powerful and overlooked tool for taking care of our mental health. Along with my findings, the burgeoning area of gut microbiome research also cemented this belief in the connection between food and mood. All of this led to me founding the Nutrition and Lifestyle Psychiatry Clinical Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the authorship of my book This Is Your Brain On Food and pioneership in the field of Nutritional Psychiatry.
Was there anything that surprised you when starting to explore how food influences mental well-being? What are you most excited for in this field in the future?
I was most surprised by the fact that foods that are frequently not best for our physical health also have a negative impact on our mental health such as worsening mood or increasing anxiety. This is why I list in every chapter of my book, the foods to embrace as well as those to avoid.
I am most excited about the cutting edge research about the gut-brain connection and impact of the microbiome on our mental well-being. As we continue to study this area, I am excited about this new frontier for mental health research.
Your book, This Is Your Brain On Food has been deemed a must-read by many in your field. How do you think about the topic of nourishment, and are there certain foods or ingredients that come to mind when you think about supporting mental well-being?
To nourish is to provide a living being with sustenance needed for function, growth and development. Such is why we eat food—to obtain not only energy in the form of calories, but the many vital nutrients needed to support a healthy body and mind. In recent decades, common dietary patterns, particularly in the Western world, have become more highly processed and devoid of these nutrients, which contributes to the growing prevalence of dietary and lifestyle chronic diseases. However, avoiding such processed foods and eating whole, real foods is an excellent means of achieving proper nourishment. I always encourage individuals to consume a diet rich in colorful plant foods, plenty of leafy greens and healthy sources of fats and proteins. An array of fruits and vegetables provides the body with fiber and several brain healthy vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols that have been shown to promote mental fitness. Meanwhile, healthy fats, especially omega-3s found in fatty fish, nuts and seeds, help to reduce inflammation and enhance brain function. I suggest that individuals utilize herbs and spices in their cooking, as many include numerous compounds that support mental health. Specifically, turmeric with a pinch of black pepper is incredibly antiinflammatory and has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety and prevent neurodegenerative diseases. Finally, I suggest that people try to include various fermented foods like miso, sauerkraut or kimchi to promote a healthy gut microbiome which has been shown to be effective in improving mental health.
How do you nourish your body and mind throughout the day while paving the way for so many others?
I ground myself in mindfulness, meditation and aspects of yoga as I find that when my mind is at peace, my body follows and I eat in a more healthy and mindful way. I enjoy seeing the sunrise and aim for a sun salutation yoga to open up my mind, body and soul to the day ahead. I enjoy a cup of coffee as I pen some affirmations and gratitudes and complete a short meditation. After this I start my work day by looking at my messages and emails. I do meal prep on weekends and my favorite breakfast is an omega 3 boosting chia pudding topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon and my healthy homemade granola with some antioxidant rich blueberries. I always keep lots of leafy greens, and chopped veggies in the fridge for a quick salad and some home-made vinaigrette. Snacks are a small serving of walnuts or hazelnuts, a piece of fruit, or hummus and veggies. Dinner is when I lean into my love for spices and use these on a plant based protein or roasted veggies, along with more greens and legumes! I change up my veggies, the colors, and the biodiversity every day and every week to ensure the best balance for my gut health. As I always say, a happy gut is a happy and calm mood.
Any advice for the Rae community or anything else you’d like to add?
I want to emphasize that Nutritional Psychiatry is not a ‘diet’, it is a field that guides individuals towards overall lifestyle changes that must be maintained in order to reap the benefits. Due to the uniqueness of each person’s microbiome, we all react to foods differently and dietary changes may show immediate and astounding effects for some, while for others change may be more gradual or less profound. Similarly, certain foods may be beneficial for some and less helpful for others. This is where my concept of Body Intelligence comes in. In order to live our best, happiest and most fulfilling life, we must be able to listen to our bodies in terms of how foods and lifestyle choices make us feel, and use this intelligence to guide our decision making. I advise individuals to learn and understand the Pillars of Nutritional Psychiatry, as well as the nutrients essential for improving mental fitness, in order to incorporate these into their lives, and stay closely connected to themselves and their body to develop their unique lifestyle of healthy foods and happy moods!