Easy Nutritional Psychiatry Simple Swaps

Let’s talk about some of the ways that you can incorporate nutritional psychiatry. One of the techniques that we use in the Brain Food Clinic is simple swaps. Simple swaps is a way of looking at something that is a part of your dietary pattern that you need to change up in some way to eat for optimal mental health. An example would be something like soda. As a clinician we can’t really just say stop drinking soda, it’s bad for your mental health. That doesn’t help people institute naturalized changes in their lives. Simple swaps help with that because it forces us to consider what are the alternatives. Why are you say drinking soda? Or why are you eating breakfast muffins or lots of commercial baked goods? Why are you taking in lots of ultra processed foods? These are the things that we know aren’t great for mental health so understanding how they’re fitting into your dietary pattern is the first step.

The next step is we swap them out for something that’s healthier. Now, how do we do that? Well, first remember that central tenet of nutritional psychiatry, which is about nutrient density. So we’re always looking to increase the nutrient density which is the number of nutrients we’re getting per calorie. Let’s take a real example. Take the potato chip. Most of the calories from a potato chip are coming from the industrial oils that they’re fried in or baked in. So let’s swap that out for one of my favorites, a home cooked kale chip. It might take a little bit of time, but a nice crispy kale chip is going to be olive oil and kale, which are both great foods for your brain. In terms of nutrient density, a whole pan of kale chips is probably 50 calories and you’re getting vitamin K, vitamin A, calcium, fiber, all the phytonutrients in there. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever eat a potato chip, but it means when you’re looking to snack on something salty and crunchy, starting to make kale chips at home is a great way to get more nutrition.

What about back to soda? That’s one of my favorite swaps when I think about how can you instantly drop a third of the calories. If you’re drinking regular soda, swap in something like kombucha. You still get that fizzy, somewhat sweet beverage. You still get a can of something cold to drink, but you’re taking in a third fewer calories. This is also where some people even advocate for diet sodas because if you’re just trying to take that next step, moving from regular soda to diet soda is certainly a good one in terms of reducing calories. Some of the studies show this helps folks overall.

Some of my other favorite simple swaps are swapping ice cream for a whole fat yogurt with fruits, nuts, and maybe a little honey sweetening it. Think about smoothies and how to swap out an all fruit smoothie or juice that is mostly sugar with a few nutrients in there. Instead, making sure we get that fiber, our simple swap is to add nuts to your smoothie, try to make it with fermented foods, and use the whole plant or whole fruit.

Another simple swap is something like a chicken burrito and swapping that out for a fish taco. Why would you do that? Well, a couple of reasons, first of all, burrito wraps are a super high sodium food and swapping that out for a corn tortilla is much simpler food, just corn and lime. Also, of course, when you swap out chicken for a fish high in omega 3 like a wild salmon you’re really getting one of the best proteins for your brain health. Also using a fish taco to advance your quest to eat a more diverse set of seafood is a good example of a simple swap. I hope some of these help you begin to think about your dietary pattern and ask yourself where are there foods that are creeping in that are a bad habit or something that’s delicious that needs to be limited or just something you maybe haven’t considered is a detriment to your mental health? Now is the time to think about some simple swaps.

Drew Ramsey, MD

Drew Ramsey, M.D. is a psychiatrist, author, and farmer. He is a clear voice in the mental health conversation and one of psychiatry’s leading proponents of using nutritional interventions. He is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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