Dr. Drew Ramsey broke onto the healthcare and wellness scene with with his first book The Happiness Diet, and then solidified his place as an expert with his second book, 50 Shades of Kale, and his third book Eat Complete. The psychiatrist is a leading proponent of using dietary change to help balance moods, sharpen brain function and improve mental health. During his “day job,” Dr. Drew is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and in active clinical practice in New York City where his work focuses on the clinical treatment of depression and anxiety. Using the latest brain science and nutritional research, modern treatments and an array of delicious food, he aims to help people live to their happiest, healthiest lives.
His recent work has focused on how the foods we eat impact our mood and can help combat depression. With his new online class, Eat to Beat Depression (registration for the new cohort opens March 1), he gives not only the science behind why food can alleviate what he calls the largest public health concern, but also the tools you need to fight depression at home, every day. We caught up with him to learn more about the class and what foods he focuses on.
Eat to Beat Depression is an online course open to anyone. Why that format? Why now?
Depression is the largest public health concern in the world. This disease saps more of our energy and productivity than any other illness. People want actionable, evidence-based advice about how to beat depression. A missing piece for so many is what to eat. In my practice, I love using nutrition to improve brain health and mental health, to translate the latest neuroscience into your kitchen. I wanted to capture the lessons I’ve learned and make it accessible to people everywhere. We launched this course now because the evidence has been building for decades and we felt that compiling the information in this way would empower folks to take action.
You talk a lot about how, in treating depression, many plans overlook food as a factor. How does what we eat impact our brain?
The science really changed last year with the publication of two clinical trials using diet to treat clinical depression. Both studies concluded that eating a plant-forward, Mediterranean style diet improves depression, and this was in patients with moderate to severe clinical depression. Missing certain nutrients like B12, folate and iron can cause clinical depression, low energy and mental fogginess. Along with these recent trials and basic physiology, depression risk is highly correlated with your dietary pattern. Overall, eating a Western diet heavy on processed foods increases your risk of depression while a traditional diet like a Japanese or Mediterranean diet reduces the risk by 30-50 percent.
I can imagine that using food as part of a treatment plan can feel empowering OR overwhelming. How do you help participants not feel overwhelmed by the info, the food prep, the recipes and the plan?
There is so much information about nutrition right now—it IS overwhelming. In the course, we start by empowering people with the latest science on eating to beat depression. Understanding the science puts the dietary guidelines in context and generates hope, a key factor when making any change.
We really try to actively combat the overwhelm by making information very applicable. The course focuses on food categories, like leafy greens and rainbow vegetables, which gives people flexibility. Spelling out guidelines rather than rules also encourages agency and an attitude of curiosity. A common comment from past participants is that food is no longer something intimidating, but a source of nourishment and a tool to help them heal.
The e-course is also self-paced with life-time access, so no need to rush or feel overwhelmed. We also provide lots of tools to help folks develop a plan that works for them and a private Facebook group where they can share successes, questions and ideas.
You also talk about how the right foods can prep our brain to make better connections socially. How does eating to beat depression help strengthen our relationships?
It’s all about connection—that’s how I really know someone is on their way to recovery. Their life has more connections. Eating to beat depression revolves around a few nutrients that promote a brain hormone everyone should know about: BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor). This hormone triggers brain cells to reach out and make more connections. More connections in your brain means more connections in your life. Plus, eating is a natural way we connect. Cooking together. Eating together. (Instagramming ourselves cooking and eating!) It all goes hand in hand.
That really makes sense and feels empowering that we can change our physical, social and emotional health through food. So, what three foods should we be eating daily to maximize brain function?
One aim of the course is to shift how people think about this question. Because you all think I’m gonna say kale, kale kale. But I’m not. I want you to focus on your overall dietary pattern and the food categories that boost nutrient density, meaning more nutrients per calorie. If you like kale, great. If not, there are so many other fantastic leafy greens for you to choose from.
One key category that is a challenge for many folks is seafood, but you don’t need it daily, just a few times a week. I prescribe a lot of mussels, clams and oysters as these are very concentrated sources of B12, zinc and omega-3 fats.
Then lentils. So easy, so packed with folate. Eat more lentils. And remember, adding in these nutrient-dense foods matters, but so does cutting out the stuff that is no good for brain health: highly-processed foods, sugary empty calories, trans-fats and the like.
What if we don’t struggle with depression? How does the food we eat impact the average person’s energy levels?
Alright, let’s make this an experiment. Anyone struggling with their energy should fill their plates with rainbow veggies, sensible seafood, nuts, beans and lentils, leafy greens, eggs—you know, real, whole foods. Cut out the crap. Move your body and get enough sleep. What happens to your energy? Your brain is a beast of energy consumption—would you try to run your Ferrari on crappy gas? No you would not. Same goes for your brain. Food is our fuel.
Okay, so there must be a food plan that’s ideal to follow. Is there one food plan that works for everyone? How do we figure out what’s the best food for us?
Food plans never work in the long term. Changing your habits and attitudes about food—that works. Having food be a vehicle for human connection, creativity and joy—that works. After talking with hundreds of people about what they eat, I’m convinced people know an immense amount about food. They struggle to take the next step, but that is how we all figure this out. We try things and check in with ourselves. My aim with the e-course is to provide a structure for people to rapidly find a new place for themselves with food. I don’t think it will be your final food plan. After all we are always evolving and changing, but you can take the next step in your journey as an eater.
Early bird pricing and registration for Dr. Drew’s Eat to Beat Depression online course starts March 1, with the curriculum available beginning March 20, 2018. This post is in partnership with Dr. Drew Ramsey.