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The Relationship Between Diet and Mental Health


Coronavirus in Context: The Relationship Between Diet and Mental Health

  • Published on Oct 1, 2020

Video Transcript


JOHN WHYTE: Hi, everyone.

I’m Dr. John Whyte,

chief medical officer at WebMD.

We’ve talked a lot about weight

gain on our show

and the results of the poll

conducted by WebMD.

But living

through this challenging time

doesn’t mean that you can’t also

eat healthy.

In fact, eating better might

actually help you deal

with anxiety.

I recently had the opportunity

to chat with Dr. Drew Ramsey,

an assistant clinical professor

of psychiatry

at Columbia University,

about tips to eat healthier

during the pandemic.

In this episode, Dr. Ramsey

talks about the relationship

between diet and mental health

as well as how to enjoy comfort

foods that are

delicious and nutritious.

When people are anxious,

often they’ll turn to comfort


Those foods are not fruits

and vegetables.

They tend to be chips, ice


foods that tend to have

high sugar content.

How do we address this issue

of wanting to use food, perhaps

to address some issues

of anxiety?


that we do this

in nutritional psychiatry

and a lot of the focus

of my work is, how do we upgrade

that behavior to something

that’s good for the brain?

So I li– I eat emotionally,

for sure.

But I try to, when I’m wanting

things like carbohydrates,

to really think about how I can

increase the nutrient density

of that dish.

You mention people craving ice


That’s a fine choice sometimes–

it’s easy, it’s quick,

it’s satisfying.

But other nights,

is it possible to just do

a simple swap,

like do some full-fat yogurt

with some dark chocolate

shavings, some berries,

and some nuts,

or have a cup of tea with honey.

You know, it sounds

silly as a replacement

for dessert, but just to try it

as an experiment.

So those are the sorts of ways

if you’re craving comfort food.

How about a kale mac and cheese?

Mac and cheese is delicious.



DREW RAMSEY: Kale mac and cheese

is delicious and also quite



Is it delicious?

DREW RAMSEY: Hey, bottom line

is, increasing

the nutrient density

of your comfort foods

is the way to win that, where

you still get that satiation

of soothing yourself with food.

So I think we want to encourage

that in patients

and then help them increase

the nutrient density.

That– that just needs more

nutrients per calorie.

Easy ways to do that

are plants, bivalves,

like mussels, clams,

and oysters.

That’s– what we work for is

kind of less shame and fear

around eating for patients.

We’ve really failed

as a medical profession giving

nutritional advice,

and in my opinion, that we’ve

really been centered

around singular nutrients

and fear-based messaging.

And so we really try and promote

a very joy-based message of,

Mother Nature makes a lot

of amazing food for you.

It’s all nutritious.

Let’s figure out how to help you

really have a– a diet that

supports you, especially

now during more quarantine,

likely, that’s happening

or at least really restricted

eating behaviors and shopping


JOHN WHYTE: Are there a couple

super foods that you recommend

most people to start consuming,

that maybe they’re not?

So for instance, I always talk

to patients about blueberries.

There’s one superfood out there

they should consume every day–

and I try to do it every day–

is a blueberry.


the blueberries, certainly

those little anthocyanins

in there.

But that’s really

the only reason that blueberries

are a brain food.

They’re a low glycemic inde–

index food.

And then they got some press

because they have anthocyanins.

Lots of things

have anthocyanins.

And so blueberries are great,

but what we do

in nutritional psychiatry

is we focus on food categories.

Food category so many Americans

are missing when it comes

to eating for the brain health

is seafood.

We eat about 14 pounds

per person for– per year.

Americans tend not to–

we don’t even have a recommended

daily allowance in the US

for long-chained omega-3 fats,


like the bivalves– mussels,

clams, and oysters.

I love seeing those in patients’

menus, really easy and delicious

to cook at home.

All of the benefits

you get from seafood,

you get from the bivalves.

We look for other food

categories like leafy greens.

And I talk a lot about kale.

You don’t ever have to eat kale.

But those leafy greens

are the most nutrient-dense food


They’re just water, minerals,

vitamins, and phytonutrients.

JOHN WHYTE: I actually like


DREW RAMSEY: OK, all right, OK.



I’m not sure about the mussels

and the clams, but– but–

DREW RAMSEY: Well, you know–

JOHN WHYTE: –kale is OK.

DREW RAMSEY: They also can be

simple, like small potatoes

or small blue potatoes.

Those anthocyanins you love

in blueberries, they also come

in blue potatoes,

a nice resistant starch

if you cool them, very calming,

satiating, delicious comfort

food that’s also packed

with potassium and folate

and fiber.

I also really love

the fermented foods these days

and pushing those in the sense

of all the science coming out

about how the microbiome affects

energy metabolism, how it

affects brain

health and mental health.


some examples

of those fermented foods.

DREW RAMSEY: So fermented foods

are things like kefir

and yogurt, are probably the two

most commonly consumed

in America.

But fermented foods are part

of any culture.

So kimchi, sauerkraut, natto,

tofu, these– these are all

fermented foods that–

sourdough bread– that– that

have some live bacteria in them.

When we think about having

a healthy, diverse microbiome,

really, it’s a two-step process

for most Americans.

They need– most people,

eating more fermented foods

and eating more plants.

JOHN WHYTE: Is there any role

for supplements in your diet?

DREW RAMSEY: You know, certainly

supplements play a role,

and I think a lot of people kind

of push

that, especially medicine

as an insurance policy.

And– and I guess I’ve always

taken a little contrarian stance

on this.

I don’t think that we can

medicate or supplement our way

out of the health crisis

and the mental health crisis

that we have.

I think that we have

a tremendous problem in America

and the types of ways–

and the foods that we eat

and how we approach nutrition,

wellness, and health.

And so certainly there are

some supplements that play

a role in mental health.

We certainly use omega-3 fats

sometimes to help augment

in depression.

There’s not really a lot of data

about any of these.

For example,

there’s– there’s data about


But instead of a zinc


I’d love to get patients eating

more papitas, more oysters, more

food that contains zinc.

JOHN WHYTE: Real quickly,

are you a believer

in intermittent fasting?


I like intermittent fasting.

I like ketones,

and I like the idea of ketosis.

I think so often in dieting,

nutrition, and medicine

in America, we are a country

of extremes.

So to like ketones,

intermittent fasting,

mea– means you’re a, you know,

ketogenic guy.

I think it’s very interesting–

JOHN WHYTE: Like that better

than Mediterranean?

All the data’s on Mediterranean

diet, Dr. Ramsey.

DREW RAMSEY: Well, I don’t think

data is what drives

individual eating choice.

And so

as a clinician and nutritional

psychiatrist, if I meet you,

and you want to go carnivore,


I want to hear what that’s

about for you.

If I meet you,

and you are in the midst

of a horrible depressive

episode, and you’re a vegan,

I want to hear what that’s

about for you.

I don’t want to come at this,

let’s get you

on the Mediterranean diet

because that’s what all the data


That– I don’t find that to be

effective medicine

s my patients.

And I think it’s where medicine


I hope we’ll listen to some

of what’s coming out of how

psychiatrists approach food

and how we approach patients.

We have a– a different setting

in the sense of, maybe having

more time.

But we also have a stance that

is maybe a bit less


And so I want to think

about for an individual,

certainly, what elements

of the Mediterranean diet

translate to them?

If somebody is using a lot

of corn and soy oil,

I’m going to want to hear

about olive oil

into their experience of it.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, well, OK,

but then why do you

like ketosis?

DREW RAMSEY: I like ketosis

occasionally because one,

it’s a state

that all traditional cultures

have engaged in.

When you look

at the Mediterranean diet,

I feel it’s really missing

from the data,

is the Mediterranean lifestyle

includes one to two months

of fasting a year,

that if you’re a Greek orthodox,

you’re fasting a lot.

You’re either not eating dinner,

or you’re on a fast

during the day,

or you’re cutting out

certain foods.

You know, there’s something

about fasting states

that is very spiritual,

it’s very deep,

it’s very centering.

And there’s a lot

of interesting data

about inner– you know, when we

are in ketosis,

our brain metabolism shifts


Right now, if you’re– if you

ate carbohydrates, your brain is

running on carbs.

Every neuron is firing

on glucose.

If you move

into ketogenic states,

where you’re getting more

ketosis, your brain starts

to shift.

And in ketogenic states,

longer term, up to 75%, 80%

of all brains fuel comes from–

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah, if they’re

done– in fairness, if they’re

done correctly, you know,

there– there

is some prescriptive nature

of the ketogenic diet.

So there– there are

some elements of that.

And you know, there’s–

I could argue there is the DASH

diet as well, where there’s very



so– there’s so many diets,


There’s the DASH diet,

there’s Mediterranean,

there’s paleo, there’s Whole30.

There was an amazing study

about ketogenic diets,

looking at three-year outcomes

in diabetics

and showing phenomenal numbers.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, I want to be

fair to the other diets as well.

I mean–


DREW RAMSEY: And I– and I think

this is where the public

and clinicians maybe shy away

or get a little confused.

And that’s where nutritional

psychiatry really helps us just

get back to basics.

JOHN WHYTE: I might have to make

some kale mac and cheese


Thanks for watching Coronavirus

in Context.



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