Dr. Drew Ramsey on what to reach for at your holiday celebrations to stay happy and healthy
Dr. Drew Ramsey, an acclaimed psychiatrist, helps his patients use food to improve their mental health. The founder of the Brain Food Clinic, he champions a holistic take on mental health with evidence-based nutritional treatments along with more traditional therapy methods.
He gave Wake-Up Call some tips on what food and alcoholic drinks you can include in your spreads during the holidays this year — to remain festive, happy and healthy.
Wake-Up Call: To start out, what exactly is nutritional psychiatry?
Dr. Drew Ramsey: It’s the use of food and nutrition to prevent and treat mental health concerns, and really to promote mental wellness. It involves reorienting ourselves to look at food through the lens of the brain and what it needs. And the evidence we’ve found has really helped us use food to combat depressions and other mental illnesses. For example, there have been a number of studies over the last 10 years showing that helping patients move from an American diet to a more Mediterranean-style diet has a significant impact in treating clinical depression.
Especially now, since a record number of people are struggling with mental health issues, going into the holidays, they’ll probably find themselves reaching for traditional comfort foods. What advice do you have for them about what might actually make them feel better?
Everyone who’s been struggling so much this year should really focus on seeking out real comfort food that makes us feel comfortable not only because it satiates us, and is delicious, but also because it’s good for us. I think there’s sort of a very twisted and misrepresentation of food and nourishment in America. Most comfort food involves some sort of guilt.
The holidays this year are going to be filled with such a complex and intense set of emotions. There’s a certain type of way we eat when we grieve that people should be mindful of, so as not to compound grief with guilt. In nutritional psychiatry, we’re always thinking about nutrient density. That means really looking at what you’re adding onto your plate, focusing a lot on sides and plants in food categories that we know have the nutrients the brain needs. Focus on getting in:
Around the holidays, a lot of Americans peak their nut intake, which is great because they’re full of nutrients for your brain.
I encourage people to look at their plates and make sure they see colors. Rainbow-colored vegetables have different molecules influencing brain health and inflammation, and they also contain a lot of fiber, which is great for our microbiome — a regulator of mood and brain health.
Oftentimes, we focus on turkey and red meat, but the holidays are a nice opportunity to really focus on seafood. It’s been hard to really definitively prove that fish oil helps, but it hasn’t been very hard to show that fish helps support brain health and mental health. My favorite seafood to recommend for the holidays are the bivalves: mussels, clams and oysters. These are really wonderfully fun and festive! Shucking oysters in your home is not something we do all the time.
Onto the topic of alcohol! Naturally, I understand it has depressive qualities, but a lot of people use it to relax. Is there a way for people to still fit it into their diet? What do you recommend?
There’s also just been a really awful trend in alcohol consumption, that’s moved away from the experience of alcohol. Just the right amount can maybe help you loosen up and hit the dance floor with your favorite people, which is actually great for your mental health!
In general, people drink too much and they drink the wrong thing, meaning they get a lot of empty calories and not a lot of nutrients. And so my real challenge to people who drink is to have several periods of sobering up or detoxing, even around the holidays. But if they are choosing to drink, your primary goal is to make brain-healthy choices, avoid empty calories, and use your alcohol consumption to better the connections with those around you.
Look for things with herbs, like mint, fruits, and ginger — recipes that aren’t just full of sugar, but also contain nutrients. Combine those ingredients with lighter doses of alcohol.
I recommend incorporating mocktails into your game. It’s hard to ration drinks when you get into a holiday drinking habit, and you’re stuck at home. I found it really helpful to have some really strong, non-alcoholic, festive drinks that I really enjoy, like ginger kombucha or homemade grape soda, with a little bit of grape juice and a really good seltzer, on hand.
A reasonably good choice is having a glass or two of red wine. Data supports that in general health benefits. White wine has some similar nutrients, but not as many.
Heavier, more nutrient-dense beers are a great choice. Guinness is a great holiday drink. It has a lower alcohol content but is still filled with a reasonable amount of nutrients.
You don’t want alcoholic drinks to be your primary source of these nutrients. Your primary goal during the holidays is to make brain-healthy choices, avoid empty calories, and increase your connections and the festivities.