Wondering if nutrition is the missing link in your mental health? Find out everything you need to know about how nutrition and mental wellness are related right here.
Mental health can feel like a complex monster. From factors out of your control to trying to find internal peace in busy moments, nutrition can easily be an afterthought. You might be asking if mental health and nutrition are even tied together at all.
It's a tough topic, but I am here to tell you that nutrition and mental health are definitely linked. Our brains use about 20% of the energy supplied by calories, meaning what we eat directly effects how we think and act. Science is finally catching up to support what we've known all along -- that in a very real way, "we are what we eat."
Read on for more helpful facts about nutrition, mood, food and mental health disorders.
Nutrition and Mental Health - Is There a Link?
Treatment of mental disorders is constantly focused on pharmacological products or psychotherapy. Both offer real benefits, but what about food? Has it ever entered the picture regarding mental health?
According to research, the above approaches only tend to help less than a half of mental illness cases. This proves that additional strategies are need, with food and nutrition therapy being a promising approach.
Nutrition and Mental Health Facts
Your brain and body constantly need energy to function. The brain on its own takes about 20% of the energy brought in each day by calories. What you eat affects the brain in many ways, including:
Relationship Between Nutrition and Mental Health
Regardless of the mental health condition you are struggling with, it is likely that nutrition can help! We all have mental health to think about, and eating a well-balanced diet can contribute to an overall sense of balance and calm.
Nutrition and Mental Health Statistics
In cases of depression, diet and mental illness are clearly related.
Those with depression are more likely to eat poor quality diets while those who consume higher-quality diets are less likely to have depression.
Some common symptoms of depression related to diet can include:
Changes in appetite
Stimulated preferences for high sugar, high fat, or high salt foods
Lower intakes of essential vitamins and minerals
These signs and symptoms can have a deleterious effect on healthy habits like cooking or grocery shopping. Studies show that diet interventions may help people:
Feel better emotionally
Have more clarity
Overcome barriers to healthy eating
Poor nutritional quality is associated with ADHD symptoms. ADHD symptoms are linked to increased intake of:
Luckily, increased adherence to diets focused on whole, healthy foods (i.e. the Mediterranean dietary pattern) may help to improve both nutrient status and symptoms of hyperactivity.
Experts say avoiding essential foods can promote obsessive thoughts related to the desire for these foods that have been eliminated. Social isolation, binging, and overeating are just a few of the related symptoms and behaviors that complicate the complex relationship between mood and food.
Nutrient Deficiencies and Mental Health
Some periods of life, such as puberty, aging, or pregnancy, require adjusted nutritional needs. These stages of life rely on increased nutrient requirements because the body goes through changes where higher amounts of vitamins or minerals are needed. Part of the purpose of these extra nutrients is to ensure the brain and body have active, healthy functions throughout the process.
Studies have shown that severe macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) deficiencies during crucial periods of development play a role in mental health disorders. In fact, one study showed that 76% of children with depression who were in therapy and took supplements achieved a state of remission. Good food is crucial to good mood.
Is Nutrition Mental Health?
Good nutrition isn't a cure for mental health problems, but a well-balanced diet focused on whole foods can certainly enhance the good things you are already doing. Working with a dietitian to improve intake of the following vitamins and minerals can help you to experience better appetite and overall balance when it comes to your mental health.
Protein plays a vital role in keeping us feeling "full". When you aren't getting enough protein, you may feel sudden shifts in appetite and a decrease in energy. Protein also assists in many body functions and metabolism steps, making it a vital component in the diet.
B vitamins are notorious for energy balance, and for a good reason. They are needed in many reactions in the body to make sure we can convert food and nutrients into usable energy. Among the key players are vitamin B12 and vitamin B6.
Probiotics (and Prebiotics)
Did you know that much of what we feel is rooted in the gut? Intestinal health is implicated in a number of mood and other common disorders. This means that probiotics, prebiotics, and nutrient-rich foods have a ripple effect beyond gut health -- they also impact whether or not we can maintain a good mood.
"Healthy" Fats (i.e. Omega-3 Fatty Acids)
"Healthy" fats not only keep us at a healthy weight, they also help keep us in a healthy state of mind. Balanced bodies and balanced moods go hand in hand, and fats are essential for things like hormone production.
Nutrition and Mental Health Therapeutic Approaches
The International Society of Nutritional Psychiatry Research advocates for nutrition to be considered a medicinal practice. Part of their approach as experts is to incorporate more of the following into psychiatry:
Higher intakes of fruits & vegetables
Higher intakes of whole grains, nuts, and legumes
Higher intakes of lean meats
Lower intakes of process foods
Supported by science, this pattern promotes a higher level of nutrients for the brain and body. Many of these foods can make you ultimately more resilient against disease and mental health disorders.
Additional foods that can be added to your eating pattern for beneficial mental health are:
"Healthy" fats (i.e. olive oil)
Antioxidant-rich items (i.e. berries, nuts, seeds)
Some foods to consider lowering your intake of include:
Sugar-sweetened snacks and beverages
Remember, restriction of foods or food groups isn't healthy or necessary in most cases. It can harm both your physical and mental health.
It's important to consult with a registered dietitian (RD) before removing or excluding foods -- temporarily or permanently.
Nutrition and Mental Health Careers
RDs can work to improve patient and provider relationships. Dietitians can emphasize healthy patterns and exhibit ways to include whole foods and help decrease intake of foods that can contribute to mental illness.
5 of My Favorite Nutrition and Mental Health Dietitians (Pros Who Know)
I'm not a mental health expert by any means, so I've created a round-up list of dietitians who have made this arena their area of specialty.
I highly recommend following each of them on Instagram so you can have positive, helpful information posted straight to your social media feed.:
It these ladies and gents don't float your boat, try searching for a "behavioral health dietitian" near you. All dietitians are qualified to be behavioral health nutrition experts, but these diet counselors are specifically qualified to give you mental health guidance.
My Final Thoughts On Mental Health
Your diet doesn't have to be perfect in order for your mind to stay sharp and stable. The good news is that nutrient-rich diets that have lots of whole foods are shown to improve health and overall mental balance. All that matters is your next step -- try and choose one positive thing to do for your mental health today!
Merotto L. Food & Mood: Nutrition and Mental Health. Leighmerotto.com. Published June 30, 2019.
Wright KC. Clinical Nutrition: Beyond Food and Mood. Today's Dietitian. 2019;21(7):10.