Editor’s Note: Season 8 of the Chasing Life podcast with Dr. Sanjay Gupta goes back to basics with an in-depth examination of the brain in different states. Each episode will focus on one of those states (distracted brain, scared brain, depressed brain, and others) to highlight what’s going on in our heads and how it affects our bodies.

(CNN) — Are you really what you eat? Decades of research support the saying that you are what you eat and highlight the important health effects of good nutrition.

Healthy food choices increase people’s overall life expectancy and reduce the risk of developing a wide variety of medical problems, including heart disease and cancer.

The effects of food on health are not limited to just the body. They also extend to the mind, affecting not only our risk of future brain diseases (such as stroke and dementia), but also our ability to think clearly in the moment, as well as our mood and mental health.

But it’s not so easy to know what to eat for brain health, or even how to measure it. Many of us have been told that foods like blueberries, salmon, nuts, and leafy greens are so-called brain foods. But how do they work? Are they neuroprotective? Do they make us smarter? Be more alert? Live less stressed? Happier?

Nutritional psychiatrist Dr. Uma Naidoo has built her career around discovering which foods improve brain function and positively influence the way we feel. She is director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, a writer, and a chef.

Naidoo describes this nascent and rapidly growing field as the “intersection of nutrition and mental health.”

“We’re not at the point where I can say, ‘Eat this many blueberries to improve your mood.’ But we’re definitely emerging and growing in scientific evidence to be able to say, ‘You can build a nutritional psychiatric plate for your mood,'” he tells CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in his Chasing Life podcast.

How many blueberries or ounces of salmon we should eat in a day to improve our mood is unclear, Naidoo said, but the standard American diet, often called SAD, that many eat does not help our mood. mental health.

This way of eating is called SAD for a reason, he said. It is high in calories and poor in nutrients, full of refined carbohydrates, bad fats and added sugars, and lacks fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and clean proteins.

“Any time we can add those leafy greens, those whole foods to our plate… and get away from those processed fast foods a little bit, the healthier we will be as a country,” he says, adding that ultra-processed foods are designed to trick our brain, so we can hardly stop overeating.

What can you do to nourish your brain and improve your mood?

Naidoo offers these five tips. And to learn more about the brain benefits of eating a well-balanced diet and how what you eat affects your mood, listen to Naidoo go into detail in Chasing Life.

1. Eat whole foods to be healthy

80% of your diet should focus on real, whole, fiber-rich foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains with low glycemic index, healthy fats and high-quality, well-sourced proteins, says Naidoo. For the remaining 20%, there is room to “enjoy life as it comes.”

“Following an 80/20 rule allows for dietary discipline with some flexibility. … Adopting this mindset allows us to get all the calming nutrients we need while avoiding the guilt that sometimes comes with being inflexible,” he maintains.

A rainbow of vegetables and fruits can provide different nutrients to your brain.

2. Enjoy a rainbow of options in your food

It’s something you hear often: Eat a variety of vegetables and fruits in a wide variety of colors.

“To optimize the nutrient quality of your diet, make sure you eat a rainbow,” says Naidoo. “Different colored plant foods contain different brain-boosting nutrients, such as plant polyphenols.”

She tells people to lean into different vegetables, but doesn’t start with potatoes and sweet potatoes. “I’m starting with cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, legumes, lentils and beans.”

Don’t forget the fruit to “incorporate those natural sugars into your body instead of reaching for the chocolate bar which we know is not the healthiest option,” he says. “I want people to understand that we need sugar for our bodies and our brain cells, so the important thing is where you get the sugar from.”

Naidoo maintains that a plant-rich diet also provides plenty of fiber “to support a healthy, thriving microbiome, leading to a healthier body and mind. “Similarly, fiber helps keep inflammation down and helps calm the mind.”

3. Green foods are your friends

Fruits and vegetables of all colors of the rainbow are great, but Naidoo pays special attention to the color green.

“We all know that vegetables are good for the body, and in nutritional psychiatry we know that vegetables are also good for the mind,” he says, explaining that they contain folate, a B vitamin, which is a building block of important neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine. , serotonin and dopamine.

“Folate has been associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms and an overall improvement in cognition, which promotes a happy, clear mind,” she said. “I suggest 4 to 6 cups of greens such as spinach, kale, arugula, spring mix or dandelion greens per day. And arugula is a cruciferous vegetable, so consider using it as a salad or even as a nutrient-rich pesto.”

4. Develop self-awareness of what you eat

Listen to your body, says Naidoo.

“An important aspect of mental well-being is mindfulness and the ability to recognize how things make you feel and act accordingly,” he says.

“If something doesn’t make you feel good or doesn’t make you feel good after eating it, there are probably better dietary options. Pay attention to your mental health symptoms and your physical body in response to various foods and use this body intelligence to guide you.”

processed foods health

The effect of sugar is very marked on the risk of diseases such as diabetes.

5. Avoid foods that cause anxiety

Inflammation is one of the root causes of stress and bad mood, says Naidoo. “When inflammation occurs in the gut as a result of added/refined sugars, processed foods, and industrial seed oils (soybean, corn, and grapeseed), the mind becomes overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious,” he says.

“When nutrient-poor foods, like those that typically make up a standard Western diet, are replaced with plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats (especially omega-3s), and protein, the gut is calmed and stress is relieved in the body and mind.”

We hope these five tips help you nourish your brain to improve your mood. Listen to the full episode here (available in English) and find out what Dr. Uma Naidoo has to say about two often controversial food groups: carbohydrates and meat. Join us next week for a special Halloween episode of the Chasing Life podcast, when Dr. Sanjay Gupta speaks with the “King of Horror,” author Stephen King.

CNN Audio’s Eryn Mathewson contributed to this report.