How Your Gut Affects Your Mood, According to a Doctor
The psychiatrist, author of Eat Complete, and Health Advisory Board member aims to connect the dots between food and our mental well-being.
What sparked your passion for the food-mood link?
When I thought about the advice I was giving as a physician, like “Don’t eat cholesterol” and “Stop eating fat,” I realized that doesn’t help people eat. I became intrigued with this notion of helping steer people toward a more joyful, more nutrient-dense relationship with food. Helping them think, “How do you, as an eater, want to exist?” Intentionality in eating has been lost for people. The No. 1 thing for me is about helping people prioritize their mental health, and food becomes this wonderful way for us to do that. We often are eating for something such as for heart health or to avoid cancer, but what if we can eat to avoid depression, if we can eat to avoid dementia? We’re not going to cure all of those illnesses just by food, but it’s something we can do in our everyday lives to tilt the scale in our favor. It empowers patients to know they can fight back with other tools beyond medication and psychotherapy.
RELATED: What Is Mindful Eating?
Can food really make us happier?
Since we published The Happiness Diet in 2011, the data has exploded around what dietary patterns are most related to depression risks. It’s become very clear that following a more traditional dietary pattern like the Mediterranean diet drastically decreases your risk of depression and dementia. But there’s also a commonsense check: How much science do I actually need to prove to you that what you eat affects how you feel? It’s a fascinating and powerful disconnect. We all know what we eat affects how we feel, but somehow, we haven’t tied brain health and our mental health to what we eat. Mental health is a combination of what’s going on in your gut and what’s going on in your brain.
How do you foster a joyful relationship with food?
One of our goals with joyful eating is to look for a way to increase the nutrient density of the things that you love. If you love carbohydrates, awesome. How do you eat more nutrient-dense carbohydrates, meaning more nutrients per calorie, more nutrients per gram of sugar? I’m a big fan of purple sweet potatoes. People have been confused that carbs are bad, but when we prioritize eating for our mental health and brain health, you start to think, “Well, what does the gut love to eat?” And the microbiome, the bacteria in your gut, they love to eat resistant starches. And so, purple sweet potatoes, those are common in our house.
Which “trending” foods are you most excited about?
My No. 1 favorite food that’s poppin’ is bivalves: mussels and oysters. A dozen oysters a couple times a month will totally change the game—they’re just so nutrient-dense. If you want the nutrients and don’t want to deal with raw seafood, mussels are a really inexpensive way to get it all: long-chain omega-3 fats, protein, and B12.
How can someone make a positive change in their life?
Think beyond food; think of the context of your meal. Eating with people that we care about, sharing food, and preparing food together is one of the ways that food connects us. It’s one of the most important mental health aspects of food, and it has nothing to do with the nutrients. It’s that when we sit down at a table with people, something magical happens. A lot of our best memories and most wonderful conversations happen over a good meal.
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