Uma Naidoo, MD, is a board-certified nutritional psychiatrist, a professional chef, and the director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is also a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. Her newest book, Calm Your Mind with Food: A Revolutionary Guide to Controlling Your Anxiety, is out now.
In 2004, National Geographic reporter Dan Buettner set out to discover the places in the world where people live longest, hoping to glean insights into the secrets of longevity. His team’s research revealed five places with the highest percentage of residents who live past 100 years old: Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; and Okinawa, Japan. They deemed these places the Blue Zones and studied their residents’ diets, lifestyles, and philosophies to develop a set of guidelines for long life that they called the Power 9, which includes a range of factors like movement, life outlook, connection with others, and, of course, healthy eating patterns.
The Blue Zones inspired bestselling books and popular TED talks, becoming a foundational study for healthy living. An initiative where aspects of the Power 9 were applied in the city of Albert Lea, Minnesota, led to substantial health benefits for the community, including weight loss and reduced health care costs.
The Blue Zones project was focused on increasing longevity rather than reducing anxiety. However, we know that the biggest impediments to longevity, like chronic inflammation and metabolic disruption, are also major contributors to anxiety. Studies inspired by the Blue Zones have demonstrated how these lifestyle choices can lead to reduced anxiety. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of employees at Northern Arizona University participated in a study where they underwent an eight-week program of Blue Zones education, including virtual presentations, cooking demonstrations, and wellness counseling. Even during such a nerve-racking time, study participants experienced better sleep and decreased depression and anxiety symptoms by the end of the course.
My favorite thing about the Blue Zones study is that it illustrates that there is more than one way to eat a healthy diet, as long as you follow certain dietary principles. While all the Blue Zones populations followed a heavily plant-based diet full of grains, vegetables, and legumes, there was plenty of variation in their individual makeups. Okinawan diets include little to no dairy, while Sardinian and Greek cuisine is dairy-rich, especially with aged cheeses—though both use goat and sheep milk instead of cow’s milk. Sardinian and Costa Rican communities eat more potatoes, though generally in preparations that lowered their glycemic index, like boiling instead of frying.
I would love to see a similar study performed with anxiety in mind, pinpointing the places in the world where people have the calmest, most centered minds. But even without performing a massive, worldwide study, we can use our knowledge of nutritional psychiatry to develop a set of dietary principles that help you fend off anxiety and create calm.
Dr. Uma’s Six Pillars to Calm Your Mind
PILLAR 1: EAT WHOLE TO BE WHOLE
The first and most important step to eating an antianxiety diet is to eat whole foods. Use ingredients that are unprocessed or as minimally processed as possible. Whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and unprocessed meats, eggs, and dairy should make up the bulk of your diet because:
- Whole foods like vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and legumes are good sources of fiber, which is crucial for gut health, fostering a good environment for helpful bacteria to flourish.
- Whole foods are good for metabolic health. Unprocessed carbs are lower in glycemic index, meaning your body processes them more slowly, avoiding spikes in blood sugar. Eating a whole foods diet is strongly associated with improved metabolic factors and a lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
- Eating whole foods is like a nutritional cheat code that will help you with every other pillar as well, since processing often saps foods of nutrients and adds unhealthy fats and added sugars.
PILLAR 2: EAT A KALEIDOSCOPE OF COLORS
Variety is valuable. Enhance your vegetable vocabulary by including a large variety of multicolored plants, herbs, and spices in your diet. Your plate should look like a kaleidoscope, filled with vibrant colors that excite your brain and transfix your palate. From the dark green of broccoli and spinach to the bright orange and yellow of carrots and squash, the vibrant reds of raspberries and beets, and the deep blues and purples of blueberries, purple sprouting broccoli, and eggplant, eating a range of colors helps ensure a healthy supply of nutrients that calm your mind. And colorful vegetables and fruits are the primary source of polyphenols and other bioactives, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and promote good health, bringing a diversity of microbes to your gut.
It’s not just vegetables and fruits that can bring color, flavor, and anxiety-fighting compounds to your meals. Herbs and spices like saffron, rosemary, turmeric, and basil also provide a boost of bioactives, while enhancing the deliciousness of your meals.
PILLAR 3: MAGNIFY MICRONUTRIENTS
Even though we need them in only minuscule quantities, micronutrients play a huge role in a vast range of body functions, including the processes that keep your brain calm and stable. Micronutrients are important for neurotransmitter function, helping produce and regulate mood chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. And many micronutrients have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that help protect your brain from long-term decline.
Because there are so many important vitamins and minerals, eating a wide variety of foods is key, as is identifying any potential gaps in your diet through testing and considering supplementation if necessary. Have your doctor run tests to identify micronutrient shortages. If you have any gaps in your micronutrient intake after adjusting your diet, take the appropriate supplements to make up for the shortfall.
The most important vitamins to help quell anxiety are the B complex, vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin E. The most important minerals are calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
PILLAR 4: PRIORITIZE HEALTHY FATS
Your brain is made up of 60 percent fat, and a steady supply of healthy fats is one of the most important factors in keeping it healthy and free of anxiety. But not all fats are created equal. Ensuring that your fat intake comes from the healthiest sources possible is another key to a calm mind.
Unprocessed oils that are rich in MUFAs like olive oil and avocado oil are anti-inflammatory and promote good gut and metabolic health. They should be your main oils for food preparation, making up the majority of your fat intake.
Omega-3 PUFAs found in seafood, nuts, and seeds are crucial for reducing anxiety, preventing neuroinflammation, and protecting against neurodegeneration. Eat fatty fish like salmon for EPA and DHA, and nuts and seeds for ALA.
Though it should not be a major part of your diet, saturated fat from unprocessed meat and full-fat dairy is not as harmful as it was once considered and is acceptable in moderate quantities.
PILLAR 5: AVOID ANXIETY-TRIGGERING FOODS
As you embrace the positive changes you have made to your diet, it’s equally important to avoid foods that will undermine your efforts and trigger anxiety. You must be conscientious about avoiding processed, artificial foods, which can promote gut dysbiosis, cause inflammation, and worsen metabolic health because:
- High-GI carbohydrates like refined wheat flour, white rice, and other starches spike your blood sugar, which can mean a burst of energy followed by a crash, a boom-and-bust cycle that is correlated with anxiety.
- Added sugars are high-GI foods and have little to no nutritional benefit. While you will get natural sugars from fruits and vegetables, added sugars should be kept to a minimum. And don’t just replace them with artificial sweeteners—while they may not pack the same calories as sugar, they can just as easily lead to gut dysbiosis and worsen anxiety.
- Omega-6 PUFAs in vegetable oils like safflower, soybean, and sunflower oil have an unearned reputation for being healthy, but they are pro-inflammatory, and I recommend avoiding them as much as possible. Be particularly careful to eliminate packaged snacks and deep-fried foods and fast food, which are loaded with unhealthy fats, including pro-inflammatory PUFAs and sometimes trans fats.
PILLAR 6: FIND CONSISTENCY AND BALANCE
Our minds are with us for the rest of our lives. To quell anxiety and achieve calm in the long term and optimize our mental health in a lasting way, it’s important to create sustainable dietary and lifestyle changes rather than falling into quick fixes and miracle diets. The best diet for your brain is one that is packed with healthy food but also one that you can enjoy. Eating is about powering your body but also about the pleasure that comes from a delicious meal.
Build your diet around healthy foods that you love. Whether they’re central to your culture’s cuisine or simply favorite foods that make you feel calm and secure, we all have foods that are important to us. Rather than forcing yourself to acclimate to a whole new nutrition plan, pursue healthy foods that fit the flavor profiles and ways of eating that you love by applying these pillars to your favorite types of food.
Use your body intelligence to gauge how dietary changes affect your anxiety. If you feel cranky, irritable, hungry, or jumpy after eating certain foods, try cutting them out of your diet. If something doesn’t make you feel good after eating it, it’s probably not good for you.
Most importantly: If you eat unhealthy food occasionally, be kind to yourself. I sometimes have patients whose anxiety is worsened by the guilt of eating cake at a child’s birthday or a plate of french fries when out with friends. But if you’re otherwise succeeding at making healthy eating a habit, you don’t need to beat yourself up about occasional deviations from the plan.
Modified excerpt from Calm Your Mind with Food by Uma Naidoo, MD. Copyright © 2023 by Uma Naidoo. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.