Harvard-trained psychiatrist and professional chef Dr. Uma Naidoo joins Zibby to talk about her book, This Is Your Brain on Food, which offers a way to approach food as medicine. Uma shares what she’s doing to grow the field of nutritional psychiatry and why she’s against telling patients to restrict themselves in their diets. The two also discuss how the awareness around the gut-brain connection has been around since the days of Hippocrates, as well as which food facts have blown her mind.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dr. Naidoo. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Thanks so much, Zibby. I’m so excited to be here. I love the title of your podcast.

Zibby: Thank you. I love the title of your book. I love the premise that we can actually eat to counteract some of the symptoms of these pervasive mental issues facing, really, almost everyone, I feel like, these days post-pandemic. Can food really affect mood and fight all of these things? How?

Uma: The mechanism is based on neuroscience of the gut-brain connection. People have heard about the gut microbiome. You may see it or read about it in a magazine or the newspaper. It’s actually true. It’s newer because it’s really unfolded in the last two decades even though, I have to say, Hippocrates was onto it many, many eons ago. It turns out that the gut and brain are different parts of the body, but they arise from the exact same cells in the human embryo. They divide up to form these two organs. Then they remain connected throughout our lives by the Vagus nerve , which I like to call a text messaging system that allows for chemical signals and messages to be transmitted up and down, back and forth all the time. Even though the gut and brain are far apart, they’re connected. That gut-brain connection helps us understand the food-mood connection. That’s a long way of saying that food does actually impact our mental health. That’s how we have started to understand it; also, the science around the gut microbes that live in the gut. What we eat does impact how we feel. At the point where we are in nutritional psychiatry, this is not prescriptive, but it’s meant to give people guidance. As young or old as our brain may be, there’s always the fact that good nutrition can make a positive change.

Zibby: I love even the concept of a nutritional psychiatrist. How do I get one on my speed dial? Can I just call you anytime?

Uma: Zibby, you can call me anytime. One of the initiatives I’m working on at Mass General, at the hospital where I work, is to actually create a training program to educate other health care practitioners, not just physicians, but other health care practitioners in this space because so many people, after my book, have reached out and asked the same question. They want to know more. They want to refer patients. They want to have access to someone. It’s because it’s a newer, more nascent field. It’s something that we really want to be able to share and have more people doing this kind of work. Call me for now, but I’m working on getting more people trained.

Zibby: I feel like in the news, the major culprit is always sugar. I feel like it’s the scapegoat of all things. Maybe it really is deserving. Does sugar really mess with our mood as much as we are led to believe?

Uma: Unfortunately, it does. Not just messes with our mood. It, sadly, is in so many foods, even savory foods like ketchup and store-bought tomato sauce and even salad dressings. Sugar is definitely a culprit. Sadly, it is very deserving of the reputation it has. Not to say that it isn’t delicious and we wouldn’t enjoy a cupcake on our birthday or something like that. Really, the principles of nutritional psychiatry are around not necessarily what’s on your plate today or what’s on the scale tomorrow. It’s about the ongoing small and steady changes you can make towards a healthier lifestyle. Sugar does affect the brain. That’s the short answer. Ways that we can find to take sugar in more naturally and replace the highly processed, sugary foods that are loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, the better our brain will be and the better our mental health will be.

There are also other foods, things like artificial sweeteners, that people don’t realize can impact your mental health or your emotional health and the gut microbiome. Fast foods and junk foods, we know this, but we may not know that fast food French fries have sugar in them because the companies have figured out that they make them ultra-palatable or hyper-palatable by adding the sugar. You don’t taste it, but it’s there. There’s all these sneaky things, processed vegetable oils and that. What I do in the book is I go through the different conditions. To your point, Zibby, these days, it’s almost like everyone has a touch of something that just doesn’t feel great. It’s not so much diagnostic. Honestly, the DSM, which is our diagnostic and statistical manual that we use, is all checklists. You have to look at the human. Individuals come to me. They have a little bit of anxiety and some problem with focus. Often, as human beings, we have a touch of a certain condition. You don’t have to carry a diagnosis. You can actually be eating healthier and living a healthier lifestyle to help your mental well-being or mental fitness, as I like to call it.

Zibby: I personally — not to make this all about me, but I have a really hard time not eating sugar. I know all the science behind it. I feel like I eat the good sugars. I’m not eating fast food. I’m aware of what sugars I’m putting in. Even though I hear it and I hear it again from you and I know it’s bad for every part of me, it feels impossible to not eat it sometimes, especially when it’s right there.

Uma: It is very hard. I actually feel very strongly about not telling people to restrict something and give it up. I do sometimes, for certain conditions, ask people to eliminate a food if there’s some concern that it’s causing a response in their mental well-being. We have to test and see. I’m generally very much about adding in foods than removing them. My guidance on that would be, enjoy it when you can. Have some sense of balance. Be leaning into those foods and those veggies — try to move from the type of sugar you’re eating to a piece of fruit to the extra-dark, natural chocolate. That, by the way, has serotonin, magnesium. Not in the candy, but the extra-dark, natural chocolate. It’s also the type of sugar you’re consuming. Try to balance it out by making other aspects of your life — lean into healthy things that you can be doing. I’ve learned with clinical experience, if you say to someone, no, you can never ever eat this — that’s why I always qualify. We can have cupcakes on our birthday. You can have a slice of cake. This is life. It’s not about being restrictive, but it’s about balance. If you do consume that, better sources is a good way to go. Leaning into those foods will help you. Leaning into the healthy fats will help you. Exercise, lifestyle, hydration, all of these things matter.

Zibby: What’s the hardest thing for you?

Uma: The hardest thing for me is, I love to bake. Sugar’s definitely something I understand at a very — I was just going to say at a gut level. Interestingly, Zibby, as a kid, I didn’t know how to cook. I would hang around the kitchen and always wanted to learn. Then there were so many cooks in the kitchen that I didn’t need to. My mom recognized that I loved science. She taught me how to bake. I loved to measure and that type of stuff. I grew up eating healthier foods but then learning how to bake. It’s often hard for me. What I do is I bake for special occasions. That’s when I enjoy the baking. I bake something. Sugar and flour, all of these things have specific scientific reasons that they’re included in baking. I do it then. I try the rest of the time to be a little bit better.

Zibby: For those out there who have ADHD or children with ADHD, which I also feel is very pervasive right now, what is the best thing for them to do? What is the worst thing for them to do?

Uma: The best thing is to eat healthier whole foods. One example of this is, skip the store-bought orange juice. Eat the actual orange which has the nutrients and the fiber versus the added sugars and the fiber removed in a store-bought juice. Look to see where they can clean up their diet a little bit. Rather than eliminate something completely, can they move towards healthier choices of what they’re eating? There are several associative studies that tell us, and any parent will tell you, that sugar affects their children in a certain way and that they want them to eat less of it. Foods that they can lean into are those fresh fruits, the vitamin C-rich food. Always, the omega-3s are great for brain development, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. You can get them from salmon. You can also get them from hemp seeds and flax seeds, walnuts. Then really looking to see, what is it that the child is trying to as a food? For example, if the child is only eating a processed ice cream cone every single day, a banana ice cream — I have a recipe in chapter eleven of my book, and you can make it a chocolate flavor — is an easy hack that is pretty simple for a mom to do. None of us have enough time. It’s super soft bananas. It’s easy to make. It’s trying to see if we can encourage the child, the family member to move towards something like that than the less-healthy version.

Zibby: I, of course, go right to the chocolate protein smoothie. I’m like, chocolate? Okay, great. Oh, here’s banana ice cream right on page 274. Bananas and honey and oat milk, that sounds easy enough. Scrambled eggs in a mug, okay, that’s easy. I can do that.

Uma: It’s intended to make it easier. There’s a chapter that was the most difficult for me to write as a chef because I kept thinking, I want to do this, and I want to do that. Ultimately, it’s about just trying to get whole, healthy foods on the table for any one of us.

Zibby: This is interesting, your libido-lifting menu.

Uma: Yes. It turns out that a lot of medications that are prescribed for mental health also have an impact on libido. That really is what led me to want to address that chapter. There are definitely foods you can start to tweak and adjust and start to include in your diet, things like avocado, which have healthy fats anyway, pistachios, and things like that. It felt to me like an important thing to address because so many individuals are on medications. Individuals who are not are stressed by other things, and the libido may not be where they want it to be.

Zibby: I am delighted that chocolate-dipped strawberries are on the libido-lifting menu, as is lox and whole grain toast and onions and capers, Cajun chicken, avocado. Great. Perfect. Thrilled. It’s not just recreational, so to speak, disorders. You prescribe foods for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There are different foods for each thing. The idea of that alone, I find fascinating. Treating insomnia and fatigue with certain foods like chamomile, I love this. I love this science.

Uma: Thank you. I especially wanted to bring it forward because it’s not things that we understand intuitively. How often do we take a headache pill and our headache goes away in ten to twenty minutes? What do we do? We swallow it. We drink some water. Where does it go? It goes to our stomach, but it works in our brain. It works in our head, our neural tissue. I wanted to share that there’s that evolving science. It’s not prescriptive so much as it’s information that people can use as an adjunctive tool. It works collaboratively. I’m a big believer in psychotherapies and different forms as well. It works with whatever you might be doing. If you are taking medication, you can still tweak how you’re eating to feel better. In individuals who are taking, say, some of the stronger medications in mental health that have conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, sometimes those medications cause weight gain. They also want to be careful about how they’re eating while they’re still taking their prescription medications.

Zibby: Interesting. Is there a food that you discovered in your research that totally blew your mind as something that was helpful?

Uma: It’s interesting. Sulforaphane-rich vegetables came up pretty high up on a lot of lists. The cabbages, the cauliflowers, the broccoli, the Brussel sprouts came up with an interesting number of nutrients, specifically, the sulforaphane antioxidant and how they interact with gut microbes. I liked that because they’re pretty low calorie, but they’re high in fiber. Fiber is so important for our gut. Most Americans count protein grams instead of the fiber grams. We really should be adding those in. To me, what emerged was that there’s a lot of good evidence behind what’s in them. The second, actually, also, leafy greens. People ignore them and think, oh, my doctor’s just telling me to eat salad again. They’re super high in folate, which as you know, moms need to take when they’re pregnant. They take the supplemental form. You get lots of folate from leafy greens. Low folate is associated with a low mood. There’s lots of studies to show that. Just having folate, it also has some really cool antioxidant substances in them which help the gut microbes and help us a lot. Often, things that we might know or have heard are healthy actually have much more to them than meets the eye.

Zibby: I love that. What are you going to have for lunch?

Uma: I tend to meal prep on the weekend just to make it easier for me. I always have salad greens prepped. Then I have chopped veggies. I decide on what protein. Sometimes I might have legumes as a protein. I love chickpeas. I like to roast them in the oven. I might have a big tofu and then add in some healthy fat from either my dressing — I prep a three-ingredient vinaigrette in a mason jar, keep it in the fridge for the entire week, or a piece of tofu or something like that to go with it. That way, I have a few things to pick from to change it up a little bit. I know that it’s going to take me a little bit of time to eat that salad. That in itself is going to keep me full. It’s something that I enjoy, so that’s what I usually do.

Zibby: Sounds good. Thank you so much. I’m really fascinated by your research. I hope to see this exploding and becoming super mainstream so that everybody knows. I’m envisioning a restaurant where you can order for your — sit here in the ADHD section.

Uma: I would love that.

Zibby: A menu that’s coded for mood as opposed to just vegan or whatever, that would be so neat. You work on that in your spare time.

Uma: I will do that. I promise.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on. It was a joy to meet you.

Uma: Thank you so much, Zibby. Take good care. Bye.



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