Forget Dieting — Make Your New Year's Food Resolution About This Instead
How does food mix with psychiatry and mental health? I’m an Indiana farm boy turned New York City psychiatrist. Growing and preserving food was central to my life growing up, as my folks and I managed our farm and forest. Eating well has always been important to me, but nutrition isn’t emphasized in medical school. Twenty years ago I was a vegetarian, who ate mostly low-fat foods, tofu-pups, and SnackWell cookies. But when I moved to NYC for my residency at Columbia University, the science between omega-3 fats and brain health really intrigued me. I started introducing fish into my diet, and learning more about the research that connected illnesses, such as depression and dementia, to our food choices.
"Dietary patterns, unlike restrictive diets, allow for flexibility because it’s not about scrutinizing everything you eat — for sure, eat the birthday cake!"
My first job out of residency was at a community mental health clinic in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan treating patients with severe mental illnesses. Weight gain was a side effect of many of the medications I prescribed to them. While these medicines are often helpful for hallucinations, mania, and depression, many of my patients were unhappy about gaining weight. I started to see that I really was missing some crucial knowledge around nutrition.
Psychiatrists ask a lot of specific questions to evaluate patients, but one day it struck me: We never ask our patients what they eat.
As funny as it sounds, we don't talk about food in medicine and mental health, even though we talk about the compounds in food — omega-3 fats, b-vitamins, magnesium — a lot. Things really shifted for me when I realized food presented an incredible opportunity for patient empowerment and added a delicious method in my clinical toolbox, along with psychotherapy, medications, and other lifestyle interventions such as exercise, to help people.
It became part of my mission to understand how food affects mood, and to bring that information to physicians and patients alike. Because of this, I’ve spent a lot of my medical career as a psychiatrist focused on food and learning how to prescribe it. Using food in my practice allows me to help patients decrease their risk of brain illnesses, such as depression and dementia, while also helping them feel better physically.
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