Dr. Uma Naidoo, CALM YOUR MIND WITH FOOD: A Revolutionary Guide to Controlling Your Anxiety

Dr. Uma Naidoo, CALM YOUR MIND WITH FOOD: A Revolutionary Guide to Controlling Your Anxiety

Zibby speaks to bestselling author, nutritional psychiatrist, and repeat MDHTTRB guest Uma Naidoo, MD, about CALM YOUR MIND WITH FOOD, a groundbreaking guide that draws on the latest science on the connection between diet and anxiety and shows us how to effectively use nutrition as essential tools for calming the mind. Dr. Naidoo shares her personal experience using food to manage anxiety (particularly as she overcame cancer and dealt with the unexpected success of her first book during the pandemic) and then provides practical tips, such as mindful practices, a glass of water in the morning, gradual diet changes, and outdoor time for anxiety relief.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dr. Naidoo. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Calm Your Mind with Food: A Revolutionary Guide to Controlling Your Anxiety.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Thanks, Zibby. Always lovely to talk with you.

Zibby: You too. You too. Of course, this is the follow-up to This Is Your Brain on Food. So much to discuss. You do a lovely job in the book of explaining exactly why this iteration of the approach to food and how you realized yourself what anxiety was doing to your body and how to control it through food. Can you tell listeners about that inspiring story and what you learned?

Dr. Naidoo: Thank you. Thanks for a great question. I’ve had two bouts of anxiety in my life that I’ve used nutrition to help me with. It’s not for everyone, but they really taught me the blueprint of my work today. The first, we might have discussed the last time, was when I was diagnosed with cancer. I really needed to lean into nutrition to help me with side effects of medications and to endure treatment. The other was actually — this is something I want people to understand. Anxiety can come from positive things. I was blessed with my first book being very, very successful. In some ways, I got into this pattern of needing to answer the next media article or do the next podcast because the book really took off, unexpectedly during the pandemic. While that was a really good thing, it spiraled me in a lot of different ways. Then another thing that happened in association with that was, the book was popular, and I visited the UK to give a keynote speech and was then invited to meet then His Royal Highness Prince Charles because of his interest in the work of a few physicians from the US. I was one of them. That was a positive thing, Zibby, and I was just so anxious. I couldn’t think straight.

Zibby: Which, by the way, anybody could relate to. I think any of us in the world meeting Prince Charles would be like, okay, my heart’s racing. This is a big deal. This is a big deal.

Dr. Naidoo: This is correct. Those two combination factors really led to my eating being so much stress that it set my metabolism off. I found myself anxious. My weight wasn’t where I wanted it to be. Yet I was trying to follow healthy principles. The truth is that it happens to all of us at some point. It’s not always a negative thing that can drive anxiety. We all have moments like that as well. It’s, how do we find a way forward? I really found my path forward through a mindfulness approach. It’s always a holistic and integrated approach, but the pull of that was how I was eating and correcting back to better ideas. It’s not perfect. None of us eats perfectly or is the perfect weight or anything like that. It’s more, what is the mindset? Mindset was also something that helped me during chemotherapy, keeping that positive mindset, focusing on what’s ahead. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced this, so I know where people are coming from. I felt there needed to be more solutions for us.

Zibby: Tell me a little bit more about your day-to-day when you were living with cancer and waiting. I know in the book you talk about the relief you felt when you did find out that you’d sort of graduated to the next level of care when you were no longer in the danger zone, so to speak. When you were waking up day after day not knowing, when you were still battling, or whatever words we can use, what was that like? Then what was it like after? You had this newfound appreciation for every bite of food, every minute, every breath. What was it like during? Then what was it like after for you?

Dr. Naidoo: That’s really important to highlight because there was a way in which you go through treatment and then you sort of forget about the acuity when you’re out of active treatment. That’s what happened to me. I think as a cancer thriver or cancer survivor, you always live with that every morning, every day. In some ways, this busyness I describe with positive things happening also quelled that worry that I didn’t realize it was there and it was actually adding to all of the good things that were happening. I was really thrown off metabolically. On the surface and in terms of what I was doing with my work, everything seemed fine. On the inside, I was also struggling. These were some of the things that came forward. When I unexpectedly saw my doctors for my usual check-up and they basically said, “Hey, you’re out of that danger zone,” I realized the weight I had been carrying emotionally. Even if I wasn’t remembering it every morning towards that appointment, it was there. I was living with it. I think most cancer survivors will say they probably live with it and maybe that that feeling is just less prominent every day. It was a massive relief and release of tension. Those habits I’d been trying to practice and getting back into stress reduction and getting back into mindfulness practice and eating healthier suddenly clicked into place. It was a very pivotal moment because I realized the gravity of what I’d been enduring. Thank you for asking that. I feel a lot better. Hopefully, I’m on a healthier path on all domains, as we all strive to be.

Zibby: Oh, good. Sorry to pry, but it was powerful how you wrote it. I think there are lessons to be learned in embracing the day-to-day when you — not that any of us are guaranteed tomorrow, but when you have less acute risk for it.

Dr. Naidoo: Exactly. That’s a great way to put it. Less acute risk. They base all of this on research. You basically think, okay, so my doctors are giving me, right now, a clean bill of health. I can continue to follow as best I can, a healthy diet and exercise and all of this to continue. There’s this huge relief between one day and the next.

Zibby: You also talked about your childhood and how there’s obviously a perception or the knowledge that in apartheid Africa — South Africa, right?

Dr. Naidoo: South Africa.

Zibby: There was obviously so much black-versus-white tension. As an Indian child, you also bore the brunt of that racism and exclusion and all of that. It’s something that you’ve sort of harbored for a while and haven’t really talked about. Can you say a little more about that?

Dr. Naidoo: Sure, I’m happy to. When I released my first book, I wasn’t really ready to share that part of my life, I think in part, Zibby, because you go through many, many years of — as a trained psychiatrist I believed and was trained to be in my own psychotherapy. In order to be a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, I need to understand the process. It has taken many years in my own therapy to be able to verbalize and talk about, really, the deep roots of apartheid and how they embed in a child’s mind. I really grew up in South Africa, but I moved to the US and have spent most of my adult life in Boston. Those roots run deep. I want to pair this together with another question I’m always asked to explain it. I’m often asked, Dr. Naidoo, how come — there’s always Twitter wars going on — not Twitter — X wars that are going on that don’t involve me, but I’m kind of observing them because there are doctors and health influencers and everyone talking about, oh, these people who talk about food in moderation, why don’t they just tell people to go low carb and give up bread and pasta and these horrible foods that will kill you? Very distinct opinions out there. I’ve struggled a lot with, why do I care that deeply in food equity? Zibby, whether you eat fish or I eat fish, I’m here to guide you as to the best piece of salmon you might be able to afford, access, and have for your family for dinner. If you eat only a plant-based diet, I’m here to tell you, what are the best plants for your brain and for your anxiety to calm your mind? I’m not here to say, never eat a leafy green, or never eat a steak.

I realized through my therapy that my deep sense of feeling strongly about equity in food is about the inequity I faced as a child. Being on the inside and outside and not being able to have things because of the color of your skin, you don’t really understand that as a child. You have friends. You’re like, I don’t feel that different, but it’s kind of been engrained upon you. The fact that I didn’t have those choices — my parents, who lived in South Africa, and my mom still is there, didn’t have the opportunities, but they encouraged education as a way to remove yourself from that. That’s exactly what happened when I had the opportunity to study overseas. I feel very strongly about food equity and people making their own choices because I didn’t have those choices growing up around the color of my skin. It is something that if people want to say, well, she talks about this or that, it doesn’t matter. I’m here to guide you. I care that you eat healthy and that you can make choices. If you’re only eating Doritos, I’m going to say, maybe you want to cut back on that. Someone told me recently that she loves Gushers. If that’s all you’re eating, probably not the best idea. You can cut back on that. What can I give you as a recipe, a tip to start eating more healthy foods? Not, never eat this or that. I think that is very divisive in our culture and leads to a lot of the eating disordered problems and obesity on the other hand, all of the things that are going on.

Zibby: Interesting. You have what’s called nutritional psychiatry, which I didn’t even realize was a thing. There’s so much of a correlation between anxiety and gut health and anxiety and inflammation and all of these things that you write about in the book. Then you, in a very helpful way, lay out some solutions and eating suggestions and even recipes, which is lovely. I was like, hmm, which of these should I try? This looks pretty good. Talk a little bit about anxiety. I didn’t even know, by the way, that — I am really bad at drinking water. I do not drink enough water. I didn’t know that perhaps a lack of drinking water — maybe it was the coffee, which I also do — you gave the example of, if someone has three cups of coffee instead of water, they can — I understand that coffee might ratchet things up. The fact that even just a lack of water can exacerbate anxiety, I’m like, maybe that’s why I have anxiety.

Dr. Naidoo: That could be it. It’s always good when you wake up in the morning to just drink a glass of water because your body does get dehydrated naturally overnight. In general, if we are not keeping up with adequate water — it’s fine to drink coffee. I love coffee, but I have to limit my coffee to the morning. If not, it impacts my sleep. I believe in a clean cup of coffee. Just clean it up a little bit. Not the kind of stuff we put in the US, in our coffee. That’s completely fine. If you’re drinking coffee, just make sure you’re also hydrated because coffee is dehydrating. If you’re having a glass of water, sustainable water bottle when you’re running around, it’s a good way just to remind yourself to keep hydrated. Dehydration is associated with anxiety. In my clinic, I’ve even seen people have panic when they are dehydrated. I think it’s a good habit. Dehydration is also associated with a low mood. If someone is chronically dehydrated, maybe just start sipping gently and build up your water intake over time because it is actually very important in terms of our metabolism, the different functions that are going on in our body, and just keep to us — but it also impacts our mental health.

Zibby: Wow. Okay, that’s the most compelling argument I’ve heard for drinking water. I know intellectually. Every day, I’m like, I should drink water. It’s good for my body, but that’s so vague. Thank you for that. It might precipitate some behavior change on my part. For the anxious person who is intrigued by your book and thinking, “Wow, can I really control my anxiety with the foods that I eat?” what are some simple things they can do through food to help?

Dr. Naidoo: One of the things I speak to people about, what I walk people through in the book are the six pillars around helping to calm your mind. One of the things of those six pillars is looking at foods that you may be consuming every day and thinking about maybe editing or adjusting them. What I mean by that is you may have had, say, a change of work. Your schedule has changed. Now you’re only buying lunch out. That’s okay, but it ends up being fast food. That’s a change. That’s different. Maybe your commute or something has changed in your life or just the pandemic where people stocked up on cookies or started to have a glass of wine or two every night versus on the weekends when they went out for dinner, little habits that might have switched. For a lot of people, it was getting comfort from ice cream every night. Often, Zibby, those comfort foods are discomfort for the brain. Can you use my recipe from my first book, This is Your Brain on Food, to make ice cream from bananas, even make it a chocolate flavor, which can be good for your brain, and switch out that habit?

Start there with something that’s bothering you. With most people, there’s something that’s kind of nagging them. They know they should be doing — with you, it is water, hydration. With someone else, it might be that ice cream or whatever it is. Start there. Start with just one thing that you can “so-called” clean up. Meaning, step back from it a little bit. Change it a little bit. See if you can sustain that. I had someone recently who really developed a cookie habit during the pandemic. Just by cutting back on the number of cookies a day, just by finding a recipe that had healthier ingredients and less loaded with sugar, finding other treats that were sweet but are actual whole foods, like a clementine with a piece of extra-dark chocolate, which actually helps your iron levels — very important for anxiety too. Just almost finding something like that is really key as a starting point. From there, what I’d like people to do is do some simple things. Add more fiber to your diet. I talk about the kaleidoscope of colors in the book because rainbow doesn’t quite grasp it. The rainbow is beautiful, but it’s only a set number of colors. Kaleidoscope, if you think about it as a child, there are many, many myriad of beautiful colors. That actually represents those plant polyphenols in every single berry that you eat, every single cruciferous vegetable and food that you eat.

I want people to think about it. That’s why we put purple-sprouting broccoli on the cover. It’s one of my favorite cruciferous vegetables. It has these glucosinolates, the sulforaphanes. It’s really rich in a lot of different things. That’s why I want people to lean into vegetables as one of the components of their nutritional psychiatry calming plate. Another is fermented foods and those probiotic-rich foods. Easy to do. Almost every culture has a fermented food. Could be kefir. Could be kombucha. It could be kimchi. Something that appeals to you. Have a little bit of that every day. Then I want people to lean into those omega-3s, omega-3s from wild-caught salmon or from chia seeds or flax seeds. Hugely important for the brain. I only mention a few foods here. All of those have antioxidants, anti-inflammatory. They’re each power packed and nutrient dense. Switching out one habit that you’re worried about, making it a healthier habit, cutting back on maybe the soda or the cookies or whatever it is and then adding in even one thing, like building up your salads or your vegetables every single day, would be a step in the right direction.

Zibby: From all that, I took away I can eat dark chocolate.

Dr. Naidoo: I love it. Yes, you can eat extra-dark chocolate.

Zibby: I’m kidding. I already eat it. It’s fine.

Dr. Naidoo: Yes, exactly. It’s actually a really good choice with people.

Zibby: What do you think about the weight-loss medications?

Dr. Naidoo: I think there’s a place for them because there’s such a huge obesity epidemic. I think the people who are going through their physicians and taking them — the one downside I’ve heard is that people are worried about, do I need to stay on this medication for the rest of my life? I’ve met several people, anecdotally, who have lost the weight, doing really well, thriving, but worried, do I need to now stay on this for the rest of my life? Also with that, they adopted healthier eating habits, which I think is great. That habit change is huge. I do think there are some anecdotal good points about it. Because we understand this amazing connection between metabolism and anxiety now, it could be that as you improve your metabolism, people are having less anxiety. Is that because they were metabolically unfit and their anxiety was being driven when they were in that state, but as they lose the weight, they’re feeling better? I think there are many positives to it. I think that unfortunately, when it becomes, for want of a better word, commercialized — it becomes the next popular thing. It may be that people may not be using it for the right benefits. I think that that’s where going through a physician, making sure you get the right assessment, if it’s something’s — remember that the remaining question — we don’t have the research. Do I need to use this the rest of my life? Many people don’t, necessarily, want to take a pill or a shot for the rest of their life.

Zibby: Interesting. How are your anxiety levels today?

Dr. Naidoo: I’d say they’re a little high, but it’s good anxiety. I have to record at a TV studio later today. In a good way, I’m anxious.

Zibby: Listeners can’t see this. She just took a big gulp of water. This is the big anti-anxiety remedy.

Dr. Naidoo: Exactly. I must hydrate. Again, I think sometimes we have to use the — people generally think of anxiety as a negative. I’m not trying to minimize that. It can be very negative and very difficult for people. You can also have anxiety over things that are not bad. They can kind of set you in a certain direction. It’s so funny that I was drinking the water too. Hilarious.

Zibby: Do you have another book in the works? Will there be another beautiful image on the cover? I love the whole look and feel of your series. I’m anticipating many, many more.

Dr. Naidoo: Thank you, Zibby. I feel honored to get that feedback from you. A lot of people have asked me, especially on a podcast, will there be a cookbook? My editor and I need to think. She’s already asked me about another book. We’re still thinking about what that should be. It’s interesting, each book has had a real origin story. This Is Your Brain on Food really came from development of my clinical work and my work at Mass General, seeing patients and then having several media opportunities which led to a book. Then Calm Your Mind with Food came of my work during the pandemic. We know through research published in The Lancet that anxiety increased by twenty-five percent. It was already the leading cause of mental health issues in the United States. I was grateful that that was proven in research. Also, this is what I was seeing. I felt we just need more tools in our toolbox to feel better. I’m not sure if it’ll be a cookbook. I’m open to suggestions. I think something will come of this. I’ll let you know.

Zibby: You could one for kids, A Kid’s Brain on Food or something like that.

Dr. Naidoo: That’s a great idea because I’ve heard a lot about that. Every parent wants their child to have the best brain, to have the best possible outcomes in life. Food is such an easy thing. When I say easy, I mean it’s something — we all have to eat. We all have to feed our kids, so it’s something that we can edit, we can change, we can improve. I love that suggestion. I’m going to bring it back to the team.

Zibby: Help your kid’s mind. Forget the extracurriculars. Forget the résumé. Help your kids with food. Something like that.

Dr. Naidoo: To your point, Zibby, when we’re taking care of those basics, those pillars of lifestyle, even their sleep, activity, maybe less digital time if it’s possible, but if we do that, honestly, the other things thrive, don’t they? If they’re thriving in their basic physiology, their nutrition, their mental well-being, it’s going to lead to better things.

Zibby: You could also do something on food and trauma. Nobody talks about that. What do you do? People aren’t thinking about what they’re eating during trauma. Even after, what happens? I know that anxiety is linked to that. Helping repair after trauma, helping the brain repair after trauma with food or something.

Dr. Naidoo: We did one chapter in This Is Your Brain on Food on PTSD. I think that since that time, and it wasn’t so long ago, it feels like trauma has just, not only with the pandemic, but every other global situation — I think that’s an excellent topic.

Zibby: Anything else I can do?

Dr. Naidoo: Exactly. You have brilliant ideas. I love it.

Zibby: Thank you. Do you have any advice either for aspiring authors or for the struggling anxious person out there or both?

Dr. Naidoo: I’m going to answer with two different — with authors, I am a little unusual. If you asked me five years ago if I was going to be an author, I would’ve said, not that I know of. I’m writing academic articles and doing research. I would say follow things that you love to do. You’re a great example of that, Zibby, and the amazing work that you’ve done. You’re just following things that you love to do. With me, my books were born, like the origin story, they were born out of loving that work and wanting to, fundamentally, help people with a different lens. That’s what led to a newspaper article going viral and then publishers reaching out. I think if you really want to be an author and you love something, do that. For the anxious mind, remember nutrition is a pillar. Simple things like a mindfulness practice, a glass of water in the morning, five minutes of a meditation that means something to you — it could be just closing your eyes. It could be just looking at the sunrise. Whatever appeals to you, that moment of stillness can actually help to calm your mind in the morning.

Quite often, we get up and we either go to our phone or the kids wake up or something like that, and our body jumpstarts. I think if there’s any way to get up even a half hour early and just control that environment before your day starts — not easy to do. I struggle with it myself. When I’m able to pull it off, my day goes differently. A glass of water, mindfulness practice, journaling if it helps. I love my coffee in the morning or the golden milk I learned from my grandmother, just something like that. With some people, if they can, they exercise. Exercise actually really releases those endorphins. A lot of people feel it kind of releases some angst. I prefer exercising in the morning, but it depends on everyone’s schedule too. Those are a few things just to remember that it’s an integrated approach. Another one, ten minutes of outdoor time without your sunblock or sunscreen gives you eighty percent of your vitamin D, which really helps your anxiety and mood. Then put on your sunblock, sunscreen, or whatever it is. At least get that in, and spending time in nature when you can.

Zibby: Amazing. I feel like I’ve just gotten a big reset menu. I’m ready to go. I’m going to get off this Zoom and go get a glass of water. I will think of you in the mornings. I am going to do that. When I take my dog out, I’ll have my own glass of water. I’ll make it a habit.

Dr. Naidoo: Love it. I love it.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for coming back on.

Dr. Naidoo: Thank you so much, Zibby. Lovely to talk with you.

Zibby: Good luck on TV today. Good luck.

Dr. Naidoo: Take care. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

CALM YOUR MIND WITH FOOD: A Revolutionary Guide to Controlling Your Anxiety by Dr. Uma Naidoo

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