Drew Ramsey at TEDxBloomington
Drew Ramsey, who says, “Food is medicine,” is one of psychiatry’s leading proponents of dietary change to balance mood, sharpen brain function and improve mental health. An assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University in New York, his clinical work focuses on the treatment of depression and anxiety with a combination of psychotherapy, diet and lifestyle modification and psychopharmacology. His books “The Happiness Diet” (Rodale 2011) and “50 Shades of Kale” (Harper/Wave 2013) and blogs The Farmacy and Recipe for Happiness aim to help people eat to for better brain health.
I brought this kale plant to share with you this morning,
from our farm down in Southern Indiana,
where I grew up.
Today, I’m a psychiatrist in New York City,
where I take care of my patients and their brains.
You could say it has been a trip from farm to pharma.
And I’m here today –
and I won’t be even joking about it –
I want to change your brain.
And I want to change your brain,
not with my usual techniques as a New York City psychiatrist –
no mind-altering drugs,
no interpretations about your mother –
I want to change your brain
with an invitation to change how you think about food,
to put your food
right at the center of your dietary choices.
It turns out that our American brains are in trouble.
This modern diet that we’re eating
of highly processed, highly palatable foods,
foods that come in packages,
foods full of sugar and refined carbohydrates
and the wrong fats and a host of new chemicals,
they are actually shrinking the human brain
at a rate we’ve never seen before.
Soon, depression will be the leading cause of disability in America
and the leading cause worldwide.
40 million Americans have anxiety disorders,
and 25% of the women that you know
will someday have clinical depression.
A few years ago,
I changed how I was thinking about our brains’ health.
I started going back to our family farm,
and I feel it holds the key to all of us –
our collective brain health.
It started with a patient about five years ago.
She came into my office,
and she was feeling down and blue and depressed.
She was an intelligent and creative woman,
but she had symptoms that many of us have.
She couldn’t sleep. She was anxious all the time.
She felt low-energy.
And I had done my very best to help her.
I had given her my best thoughts about her psychology.
I had given her the best medications that I had:
medications to boost her mood
and to calm her down and to help her sleep.
And as her physician,
I was failing.
She was still blue and sad and anxious.
I flashed back to my very first day of medical school,
right over here in Jordan Hall.
As you walk in, if you look up,
carved into the limestone, it says,
“The nature of the human body is the beginning of medical science.”
And at that moment, with that patient,
I so badly wanted to know
what was the nature of this human body,
of this human brain that was not functioning well.
And I couldn’t know at that moment.
So out of desperation or frustration,
I asked her a question we don’t really hear much in healthcare these days.
Maybe your doctor has never even asked you.
I asked her what she had eaten for breakfast.
And in that moment, both of our lives changed.
It turned out, she hadn’t eaten breakfast.
She was on a juice fast.
She was trying to energize and detoxify her body.
She hadn’t eaten meat or seafood for years,
concerned about her health.
She had not eaten any fat
because she was convinced that fat would make her fat.
And she hadn’t eaten any eggs, of course.
You know, that cholesterol.
It struck me as very strange.
We were both working so hard
to help this brain be healthy and vibrant and happy,
and it hadn’t gotten any of the nutrients
that a happy, healthy brain actually needs.
She jokingly told me that she had come for my pharmacy,
for the many evidence-based treatments that I have,
the many medications that I can offer patients.
We know that about 12% of adult Americans take anti-depressants.
They are now the most prescribed class of medications in America,
and that rate has doubled in just 10 years.
Part of that is good news.
That means more people are getting treated.
That means we’re decreasing stigma.
That means we are all having a national conversation
about what is going on with our mental health.
But I wonder, what else could we be doing.
What more could we be doing?
There’s a horrible epidemic that is upon us.
What if we jumped into mental health
by building the best brain possible?
So I’ve been obsessed with this question:
Can you eat to build a better brain?
If we feed a brain with these foods,
with whole, fatty fish,
full of those omega-3 fats that your brain is made of;
and whole fruits and vegetables; and nuts and beans –
If you eat that way, do you have a healthier, more resilient brain?
See, back on my farm,
I felt like I had discovered a whole new class of medications,
a whole new drugstore.
Back on the farm,
I found the “farmacy.”
And the nature of that human brain seemed clear to me.
The nature of that human brain
is that it is made of whole, minimally processed foods.
Now, the brain is an amazing organ.
We talk so much about diabetes and heart disease and cancer,
and we talk about what we eat.
But it makes sense to talk about our brain.
Just 2% of your body weight,
it consumes 20% of all the food that you eat.
It’s about 60% fat,
specifically a lot of those omega-3 fats,
and it has high concentrations of nutrients like folate and iron.
It is an amazing organ.
A hundred billion brain cells that reach out,
and they connect with thousands of other cells.
Your brain is actually electric.
And everything that you’re experiencing at this moment,
everything you’re feeling and thinking, every movement, every sound –
it’s all coming in through your brain.
The most exciting piece of neuroscience these days – brain science –
is that your brain actually grows and changes –
something we didn’t know back when I was in Jordan Hall.
It’s a new discovery.
We found a molecule called BDNF:
brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
It’s fancy science talk for,
we were looking in the brain, we found this molecule.
You put it on brain cells, they grow. They thrive. They make connections.
A hundred billion cells
reaching out and connecting to 10,000 other cells.
If you do a calculation,
it turns out that your brain,
that your unique human brain
has more connections than there are cubic meters in the entire universe.
Your brain has a universe of possibility.
But that universe gets smaller and smaller
if you don’t feed it the right foods.
Nothing illustrates this better
than the legend of the vampire.
In the 1500s in Europe, food suddenly had changed.
There was a new food, a tasty food,
and it spread throughout and became a basis of the diet of the poor:
this brand-new food called corn.
And you may think of a vampire
as a, you know, sexy undead person who races around drinking blood,
but that’s not true.
In real life, vampires suffer from a medical condition called pellagra.
They look like this.
This man has only eaten corn for years,
and he doesn’t come out during the day
because of that horrible rash on his skin that the sun burns.
He’s aggressive and irritable and angry.
He’s restless, and he gets into fights.
He craves all kinds of strange foods, like bugs and blood.
But the problem is he’s only eaten corn.
When Christopher Columbus brought corn back from the New World,
he forgot a secret that we’ve always known.
Traditional people have always known that when you eat corn and subsist on corn,
you have to soak it overnight in lime.
That releases vitamin B3.
This man has pellagra, a condition of vitamin B3 deficiency.
And it’s all to say how our brains can change,
how when we change our food, we change our mood.
We change our brains,
and we come up with all kinds of explanations for it.
And think about how much we’ve changed our food,
more in the last 100 years than in the past 100,000 years.
Food doesn’t even look like food anymore.
It doesn’t come from farms; it comes from factories.
Thousands of new molecules that we’ve put into our food supply
to color our food and enhance our food and preserve our food.
We’ve changed the way that we consume our food:
on the run, in a car, with our heads in a screen.
We’ve changed the way that we calculate what is good for us.
We count calories.
Imagine a soda, 140 calories,
and there’s not one good thing for your brain in here, just sugar.
Americans are eating plenty of that.
The average American eats 32 teaspoons of sugar every single day.
And then compare that with a medium-sized kale salad,
four or five cups of kale: also 140 calories.
But with those calories,
oh, you get 500% of your vitamin C,
3000% of your vitamin K,
1000% of your daily need of vitamin A,
not to mention folate, calcium, magnesium, protein, fiber.
Which do you think is better brain fuel?
The science is pouring in.
When we look at women and they eat more processed food,
they increase their risk of getting depressed by 60%.
People who eat the most trans fats,
those partially hydrogenated oils
that you’re only going to find in processed foods,
you drastically increase the risk of feeling blue or getting depressed.
And our kids – our children’s brains,
the most dynamic time to have a brain, when you’re a child.
When we feed our kids junk food, we double their risk of depression,
we double their risk of attention deficit disorder.
This morning, I woke up to an e-mail
from a woman that I met at a conference some months ago.
Every morning, she wakes up
and she drives her Honda Accord around upstate New York
to organic farms, collecting eggs and produce,
and she takes them back to her school
where she cooks home-cooked meals from scratch for those kids.
She asked me if I remembered her.
Julie, I can’t forget you
because what you’re doing is you’re saving brains.
We know if we look at studies of kids,
when we take them off junk food
and we put them on whole, unprocessed foods,
in just six weeks, 80% of them have improved behavior
by both parent and teacher rating scales.
50% of those kids no longer meet diagnostic criteria
for attention deficit disorder.
Real food heals brains.
And that’s what happened with my patient.
She started eating food.
We started talking about salads and where to find fresh seafood.
I convinced her to eat an egg.
She started feeling better.
She started dating.
She got married.
She had a baby.
Food is medicine.
We know that from the very first doctor, Hippocrates:
“Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.”
3,500 years ago.
And science is telling us
these molecules in whole foods, like the flavonoids,
they not only are antioxidants as you might think of them,
but they actually change how your genes get expressed.
Your genes aren’t your destiny.
And these molecules that you find in whole food
improve the situation for your brain,
improve your brain’s health.
Now, a lot of people are telling you what not to eat.
Don’t eat meat. Don’t eat wheat. Don’t eat soy. Don’t eat dairy. Don’t eat fat.
And that’s a problem for me because I am an eater.
I love to eat, and I love food.
I love to grow food and harvest food
and to share food with my friends and with my family,
and so I thought it would be best for patients and for my patients’ brains
if we could talk to them about what to eat,
if with whatever prescriptions they get, they also get a brain food prescription.
Foods that they like. Foods that you like.
Foods that you can eat at every meal.
So what’s a brain food prescription look like?
Well, it has a lot of plants in it, lots of leafy greens,
that source of folate and fiber that keeps you full.
Look for lots and lots of colors.
Tomatoes and watermelon, full of lycopene, that protect that brain fat.
I want you to see –
I want you to see whole grains and legumes and lentils,
like this great salad that my wife made – or soup that my wife made.
It’s covered in garlic chives.
And always go for the color purple.
It’s great for your brain, no matter what.
Look for colors and lots of plants on your plate.
And fungus, a great source of vitamin B3,
the niacin that would have prevented that poor man from developing pellagra.
Eat lots of seafood and fatty fish
because it is the source of those omega-3 fats.
And if you don’t like fish, I challenge you:
there are a lot of fish in the sea; try other types.
And don’t forget the mollusks.
Oh, boy. These are the foods that your brain evolved eating.
Full of vitamin D and B12 and more of those omega-3 fats.
And you can even eat red meat.
You can make a better choice.
Get rid of industrial meats, processed meats and deli meats,
and instead eat whole, real grass-fed meat.
It has fewer calories and better nutrients for your brain and a better mix of fats.
A brain food plate looks like this:
lots and lots of healthy, delicious vegetables,
a nice piece of nutrient-dense, grass-fed lamb coated in rosemary.
It’s savory; it’s delicious. And it fills you up.
Don’t forget eggs. They’re a great way to start your day.
You don’t need to fear dietary cholesterol.
Your brain is the largest deposit of cholesterol in your entire body.
This is a healthy breakfast.
And don’t forget beans.
People say it costs too much to eat right.
I challenge you. Dried beans: $2.29/pound in Manhattan.
There’s my wife, soaking them for us.
We eat them every week.
Don’t forget berries, a great source of sweetness in your diet.
Of course, we crave sweetness.
Don’t forget the most medicinal food out there: dark chocolate.
In between these berries are cacao nib.
Now, you might know this already,
but chocolate is one of the few foods that’s been shown to boost mood,
that’s been shown to boost concentration
and boost blood flow to your brain.
your brain –
your unique, human brain
has a universe of possibility.
And with this tool –
You decide how big that universe is going to be.
So I ask you:
what are you going to eat for lunch?