Diet and mental health: how nutrition professionals can help
Nutrition professionals can play an important role in diet and mental health. Here’s what dietitians need to know about nutrition to mitigate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Did you know that 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year ? With so many people experiencing a decline in mental health, it’s important to know how you, as a dietitian, can use nutrition to possibly mitigate your client’s struggles.
But before we get started, let’s discuss what mental health is, what symptoms you should watch out for, and what foods can negatively affect the brain.
What is mental health?
Mental health includes your emotional, psychological, and social well-being, and affects how you think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how you handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life.
Here are some common mental health struggles that your clients may deal with.
Overall anxiety disorders affect roughly 20% of adults each year .
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental health disorder that produces fear, worry, and a constant feeling of being overwhelmed. Furthermore, it’s often characterized by excessive, persistent, and unrealistic worry about everyday things.
GAD affects children, men, and women; however the prevalence of women with GAD is twice as high as it is among men .
Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a diagnostic condition characterized by a period of at least two weeks when someone experienced a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities, and has had problems with sleep, appetite, energy, concentration, suicidal thoughts or self-worth.
MDD is estimated to affect 8.4% of all U.S. adults, with the prevalence being higher among women when compared to men .
TIP: As a nutrition professional, you can create a diet for depression to help improve your client's mental health. Learn how in this article.
Signs that your clients may be struggling with mental health
If you suspect that your client may be struggling with a mental health disorder, here are some signs to watch out for:
- Not sticking to goals
- Irritable during sessions
- Skipping meals throughout the day
- Obsessive thoughts about negativity
- No motivation
- Having trouble doing daily tasks
- Avoiding certain activities because it worries them
Note: Nutrition or lifestyle changes may not fully alleviate your clients’ symptoms. If you feel that other healthcare professionals need to intervene, you should work together with them to ensure the best outcome for your client.
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How are diet and mental health related?
Emerging evidence shows that food has a direct impact on the brain. Studies have found that people who follow the Mediterranean diet (filled with fruits, vegetables, fatty acids, lean meats, and whole grains) tend to have a 25 - 35% lower risk of depression compared to those who eat a more “Western” diet, which is often filled with processed and refined foods, added sugar, and very little fresh foods .
While you don’t necessarily need to recommend each client to follow the Mediterranean diet, you can examine the components of these eating styles to determine how nutrition and mental health are related.
Let’s start by looking at some ways that diet and lifestyle choices negatively impact mental health.
Diets high in refined sugars are harmful to the brain, as they promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Interestingly, high levels of anxiety have also been associated with increased levels of leptin and inflammatory markers.
Studies have shown that people who eat 67 grams or more of added sugar per day are more likely to have depression . Furthermore, research shows that depressed individuals often consume higher amounts of sweets and refined sugars and lower amounts of legumes, fruits, and vegetables compared to those who aren’t depressed .
TIP: Discover 4 ways to help tour clients break up with sugar in this article.
Alcohol consumption can increase symptoms of anxiety, which can eventually lead to alcohol dependence to cope with this increased anxiety. If your client struggles with anxiety, you should encourage them to avoid alcohol to decrease any uncomfortable symptoms.
Research has shown that a diet high in saturated fats can lead to brain inflammation, which may contribute to symptoms of depression .
Foods rich in saturated fat include butter, palm oil, cakes, processed foods, sausages, bacon, cured meats, and cheese.
Lack of physical activity
General exercise offers various mental health benefits, like reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood, as well as improving self-esteem and cognitive function. However, studies show that people with anxiety tend to be more sedentary and do less intense forms of physical activity .
Poor sleep quality
Studies show that those who have inadequate sleep patterns are more likely to have frequent mental distress .
Tip: To help your clients get better sleep, check out this article for some tips to improve their sleep hygiene.
Not having a solid routine
Routines can be important anchors to maintaining good mental health and dealing with anxiety. Some benefits of having a routine include:
- Reduced stress levels
- Better sleep
- Improved physical health
- Addiction recovery
Simple diet tips to support your mental health
Consuming a brain-healthy diet rich in nutrients (like green leafy vegetables, fatty fish, berries, and walnuts) can significantly benefit mental health.
Instead of focusing on what your clients need to eliminate from their diet, let’s emphasize nutrients that can improve mental health. Let’s break some of these down into a little more detail.
Vitamins for mental health
Vitamin C is important for mental health due to its antioxidant properties that protects against oxidative stress and alleviates inflammation. As such, this vitamin can be beneficial for those with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.
Some foods rich in vitamin C include red and green peppers, oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, and broccoli.
Magnesium may have beneficial effects on stress, sleep disorders, anxiety, and mild cognitive impairment, as well as on neuropsychiatric disorders.
Some great sources of magnesium include spinach, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Vitamins B6, B12, thiamin, and folate have been found to help treat and even prevent many mental illnesses like depression.
Some vitamin B rich foods include meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy. However, if your client is vegetarian or vegan, a supplement may be necessary for them to meet their needs.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3’s are essential for mental health, as research shows that these fatty acids can reduce the risk and the severity of depression, schizophrenia and ADHD. 
Some great sources of omega-3’s include salmon, herring, walnuts, chia and flax seeds, and sardines.
Studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency can play a role in depression and some other mood disorders . While you can get vitamin D from sun exposure, you can also get it through a few foods (like fatty fish, egg yolks, mushrooms, and other fortified options). However, supplementation may be necessary to meet your client’s needs.
Pre- and probiotics
Research has found that probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function and lower stress and anxiety . Other studies have shown that both pre- and probiotics can improve mental health and psychological function .
Probiotics can be found in foods like yogurt and sauerkraut, whereas prebiotics can be found in bananas, greens, onions, garlic, soybeans and artichokes.
Whole grains can help reduce mood swings, anxiety, and depression. Many whole grains are naturally rich in an amino acid called tryptophan, which your body needs to produce serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin can help to improve mood, whereas melatonin can establish and maintain steady sleep cycles. As such, tryptophan may help manage symptoms of depression and promote healthy sleeping patterns that are important to mental health.
Some good sources of whole grains include barley, brown rice, buckwheat, popcorn, oatmeal, and whole wheat bread or pasta.
Fruits and veggies
Fruits and vegetables can have a positive influence on mental health. They have been found to promote higher levels of optimism and self-efficacy, reduce the level of psychological distress, and protect against depressive symptoms.
Some foods that help depression include carrots, spinach, lettuce, cucumber, apples, bananas, grapefruit, other citrus fruits, fresh berries, and kiwi.
How to implement dietary changes to support mental health
Create a realistic meal plan
No two clients are going to struggle with the same problems, so it’s important that you understand each person’s nutrition needs, family dynamic, budget, and lifestyle. This will allow you to create a realistic meal plan that they can stick to.
TIP: Difficulties in keeping your customer motivated? Here are some of the best ways to keep your clients motivated for their nutrition resolutions.
Emphasize eating regularly
Skipping meals or going too long without eating can cause a drop in blood sugar. This can lead to mood swings, or feeling jittery, irritable, or lightheaded, so to avoid this, try to have your clients eat periodically throughout the day.
Instead of making big changes all at once, hone in on incremental habit changes instead. After all, small changes can add up to big results over time. This could include:
- Adding spinach to a smoothie
- Walking for 10 minutes a day
- Setting an alarm for the same time each morning
- Drinking a glass of water before breakfast
Work with other experts
If you feel it’s necessary, refer your client to other specialists like psychologists, psychiatrists, or physicians who specialize in behavioral health. You can also reach out to other experts for their advice. There is always something new to learn, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If your client struggles with mental health issues, you can gently work with them to improve their mental status. Foods rich in B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and probiotics can have a positive impact on anxiety and depression, whereas sleep and exercise are also important for mental health.
However, nutrition or lifestyle changes may not fully alleviate your clients’ symptoms. If you feel that other healthcare professionals need to intervene, you should work together with them to ensure the best outcome for your client.
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- Mental health by the numbers. Retrieved September 16, 2022 from https://www.nami.org
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