12 May 2024

Eat yourself calm: Foods that relieve anxiety

From Sunday Morning, 10:10 am on 12 May 2024
Dr Uma Naido with her book, Calm Your Mind with Food

Photo: Dr Uma Naido

Foods and nutrients can be powerful tools to improve our mental well-being, a nutritional psychiatrist says.

Uma Naidoo, is a Harvard nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef and nutritional biologist and her latest book is Calm Your Mind with Food.

At her practice in Massachusetts, she often sees patients with what she describes as metabolic disruption.

“Our blood sugar, the development of things like insulin resistance, things that we've heard about and previously not necessarily thought may be directly involved with our emotional health.

“Well, it turns out that all of these factors can be related to our emotional health. Because mental health is not an above-the-neck concept. We are now seeing our emotions as really being integrated with things like our gut health, as well as the rest of our body.”

Individualised nutritional advice is not a practical option for many people, but she says there is still much we can do to improve our mental health and mood.

“[People] can examine their diets on their own and think to themselves, what are the unhealthy things that I'm doing? Many of us know the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods, but sometimes making that habit change is very challenging.”

Cutting out obviously bad things is a good start, she says.

“Coming out of the pandemic, if they have started to eat ice cream every night, or maybe they're drinking more sugar-sweetened beverages, cold drinks or sodas, these are things which they can tweak on their own by starting to cut back, starting to swap these out with healthier choices.”

The next step is to observe any changes in their emotions, she says.

There is good data linking better diet with better mental health.

“It's been shown in research that ... eating those healthier foods and improving dietary changes can uplift mood and lower anxiety.”

Foods that are rich in fibre, phytochemicals and nutrients should be the foundation of our diet, she says.

Fibre, in particular, is a very important nutrient for gut microbes.

“With the gut-brain connection being such a powerful mechanism in nutritional psychiatry, it's important for us to take care of the health of our guts.

“One easy way to do that is to eat foods that are rich in fibre. And fibre can only be obtained from plant foods, like beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, vegetables, healthy wholegrains.”

Go for greens

Naidoo suggest mixing things up when you’re buying greens.

“Challenge yourself to try new ones. So, if you see a new green in the supermarket or the farmers' market, experiment with it, look up a recipe, because the ... different types of leafy greens [and] foods that you're eating, they bring biodiversity to those gut microbes and help the health of your gut - and a happy gut is a calm and happy mind.”

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Photo: Wikicommons

Fatty seafood is your friend

Wild-caught salmon is a great option if available, but tinned salmon and sardines work just as well, she says.

“Sardines and anchovies in a tin are actually very rich in omega 3 fats - so both [are] great options.”

Nuts and seeds

Stick to nuts in their raw, unadulterated state - but don’t binge them, she says.

“Things like nuts and seeds are nutrient-dense foods, but if we eat cups and cups of them, they actually become too many calories of that food in a given day.”

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Photo: 123rf


Naidoo is a fan of this spice, but says it’s best alongside black pepper.

“Black pepper activates the curcumin to make it much more bioavailable to brain and body.

"If you want to obtain this through food, add a quarter teaspoon of turmeric with a pinch of black pepper to anything in your food on a daily basis.”

Keep it spicy

Spices are the hidden pharmacy in our kitchen, she says.

“We tend to overlook them and think of them just as flavourings and making our food tastes good.

“But they have powerful benefits…they tend to be salt-free, sugar-free, [with] low to no calories. They have hugely important anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties which are very beneficial to us.”

Common herbs are also beneficial, she says.

“Rosemary, parsley, thyme, capsaicin, mint, can be super impactful for brain health as well."

Ground turmeric (Curcuma longa) on a wooden kitchen spoon. (Photo by PHOTOSTOCK-ISRAEL/SCIENCE PHOTO / PSI / Science Photo Library via AFP)


Fermented foods

While food such as sauerkraut can be beneficial, people with certain conditions should proceed with caution, she says.

“If a person has certain gut or gastrointestinal conditions like IBS, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, these foods while they're still healthy, can exacerbate some of those symptoms.”

Glutamates and OCD

Again foods that contain glutamates are generally a good thing, but they can exacerbate OCD, she says.

“That's where it becomes important to be wary of the glutamic acid in these foods; fish sauce, oyster sauce, tomato, miso and parmigiana.”

Dark chocolate

Big claims have been made for dark chocolate and depression, and they’re not without foundation, she says.

“We're talking about an extra-dark natural chocolate and there have been good trials using extra-dark natural chocolate that have actually showed improvement in conditions like depression.

"If you like chocolate, start to eat the more natural forms of chocolate, the extra dark, eat small amounts of it and get used to that as it is potentially very helpful. It's rich in multiple nutrients.”


A third of women under age 50 are iron-deficient, she says, and iron deficiency causes anxiety.

“It is an important nutrient to make sure we test for, and replenish through supplementation if needed, but also through the food that we eat.”

Extra dark natural chocolate is the richest source of plant-based iron, she says.

“But in order for it to be absorbed, to actually interact well with the body, you need vitamin C, which you can get, say from a piece of citrus fruit.

“I often suggest as a dessert option to my patients, teaching them to eat a little bit of extra dark chocolate, but with a piece of clementine or mandarin, to helps that natural absorption.”

Ashwaganda supplements for anxiety

There are a clinical trials in humans using ashwaganda, she says, which show a benefit.

“It just doesn't taste very good, has a very bitter taste. So, it is best obtained as a supplement.”

Always let your GP know any over-the-counter supplements you are taking, she says, as they can interact with some prescription medicines.

Uma Naidoo is the founder and director of the nutritional and metabolic psychiatry service at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of the bestseller This Is Your Brain on Food