What role could food play in mental wellness?

Dr. Uma Naidoo founded and directs the first hospital-based nutritional psychiatry service in the United States. She spoke with What the Future about how food and nutrition are becoming more important to mental wellness.

What role could food play in mental wellness?

The author(s)

  • Matt Carmichael What the Future editor and head of the Ipsos Trends and Foresight Lab
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Dr. Uma Naidoo is a highly unusual combination of psychiatrist, nutritionist, professional chef and author. She combines these disciplines as the director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her book, “This is Your Brain on Food,” looks at the role that food plays in how we feel, both physically and mentally.

Matt Carmichael: What are we learning about the role of mental health in our overall wellness? 

Dr. Uma Naidoo: A lot of recent research has shown how influential our gut health is in determining our mental health. It’s the basis of our understanding the connection between mental health and food. I think people ignore how they’re eating in terms of their emotional health, and that’s a link we really need to start making.

Carmichael: What is still on the horizon in this space?

Dr. Naidoo: More precision technologies and understanding the biological factors that are implicated in mental health, then tailoring that plan to help that individual. I feel that nutrition is very much a part of that. And the second area of expanding research is what we call psychobiotics — basically live bacteria. I feel that the cutting edge is going to be that these will be available in a pill form. My hope is that we can integrate this in nutrition. A person could speak to their doctor about it, but I think the gap is that psychiatrists are not necessarily practicing this way yet.

Carmichael: It sounds like the whole package — the pharmaceutical solutions, the therapeutic solutions, the nutritional solutions, and the lifestyle solutions — is what you want to be shooting for. 

Dr. Naidoo: That’s what I want to be shooting for. The model of care that I practice in psychiatry is holistic, integrated and functional. You might have irritable bowel syndrome but come to me [as a psychiatrist] with anxiety. But in fact, what's driving that anxiety could be the disruption of your gut through IBS.

Carmichael: To what extent do science and technology play a positive role in our food system? 

Dr. Naidoo: New means of preserving any type of nutritional value in food for a longer time would be welcomed. It’s obviously going to prevent foodborne illnesses or infection, or disease transmitted by food. It could be more efficient production of foods and more widespread access of food. It’s a delicate balance of finding enough nutrition in something, but not processing the life out of it. 

Carmichael: We have a current bifurcation of those who are attuned to their health and nutrition, and simultaneous crisis of those who struggle with it. How can we improve that? 

Dr. Naidoo: Access to information, especially during COVID, has changed because people are accessing things online. But it’s also the responsibility of scientists, physicians and media outlets, to put forth accurate educational content. I think it’s powerful to bridge that chasm between different demographics and people who need access to information and those who are providing it. I feel the increased awareness of mental health conditions and the resources that are available is something that I find encouraging. I think that people are maybe the slightest bit more open to hearing about a less stigmatized version of mental health. 

Carmichael: What does this intersection of food and mental wellness look like five to ten years out? 

Dr. Naidoo: The direction we are going in is focusing the research and getting to the point where we understand dosing of foods. Nutritional psychiatry is not at a prescriptive point. We are not at a point where we can say eat these three blueberries, four almonds and two carrots. But I think research is taking us in that direction of understanding the amounts of food we should be eating for a certain effect. It’s almost like someone at the holiday party going through the buffet table and making a selection. I think we have personalized nutritional psychiatry and personalized medicine taking us in a direction where we are not just making choice on our own but with guidance. 

The author(s)

  • Matt Carmichael What the Future editor and head of the Ipsos Trends and Foresight Lab