Eating Well for Better Mental Health

Behavioral healthcare providers know there isn’t one definitive solution to treat the mental health needs of their clients. From their very first days on the job, clinicians working in mental and behavioral healthcare are prepared to do everything in their power to help their clients cope with complex and diverse mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and a myriad of other concerns. Typically, treatment includes therapy, but can also include positive interventions like medication and dietary counselling. 

Many clinicians struggle with alternative approaches to therapy because they do not have the same training as dieticians or nutritionists, and may not be aware of the extent to which eating habits can impact mental health. Even if they are aware of the connection, they may not feel confident giving clients dietary advice, instead preferring to refer them to the relevant specialist outside of their practice. 

However, with the prevalence of mental illnesses increasing, and suicidal ideation rising by more than 460,000 people in 2021 alone, there’s no time to wait. By improving their awareness about how diet can impact mental health, clinicians can help their clients take positive steps towards a future where they are less impacted by their mental health concerns.  

The Science Behind Eating Well for Mental Health

There are many reasons why helping a client improve their diet can also have positive effects on their mental health. 

When we only eat nutrient-poor foods with plenty of added sugar and artificial additives, it typically doesn’t make us feel our best. Even the simple act of choosing a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and legumes can make us feel more confident–a benefit that has the potential to translate to improved mental health outcomes.

There is a connection between our gut and our brain that can help explain some of the reasons why our dietary choices impact our mental health. Our gut and brain are inextricably linked by the vagus nerve, which allows the flow of messages and information between them. One of the ways that they send messages is through neurochemicals, which our body produces to regulate various processes, including mood.

The creation of these neurochemicals, including serotonin (a mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter), can be influenced by changes in beneficial gut bacteria, which has been shown to occur during particularly stressful periods. Additionally, eating a diet that’s rich in sugar and processed foods can lead to inflammation, which has been shown to contribute to both anxiety and depression.

Helping Clients Improve Their Diet for Better Mental Health

So, how can clinicians take this knowledge and use it to help their clients? The easiest way is to help them learn how to recognize the ways that their mood and mental health are influenced by what they eat. 

By walking them through a list of foods that are beneficial for their mental health, as well as a list of those that may be less detrimental to their health, you can help them learn how to make better food choices in their daily lives.

Foods to Avoid

Unfortunately, a lot of the foods that negatively impact our mental health are cheap, widely available, and intentionally marketed to look delicious. 

In general, people should avoid pre-packaged or fast food, because it contains high levels of artificial ingredients like sodium, trans and saturated fats, and nitrates. This type of food also tends to be high in added sugar. These food additives have been shown to worsen our regulation of insulin and promote inflammation.  

Simple carbohydrates, like those found in white bread, crackers, cake, or cookies tend to spike blood sugar, leading to a brief energy high followed by a fatigue-inducing crash. 

A similar high-and-crash cycle occurs when we gorge on foods that are high in sugar. These foods have been shown to cause impaired brain function, which can negatively impact symptoms of mental health conditions like depression.

Foods to Eat  

So, what foods should clients choose as a healthy alternative instead? To help improve their overall mental health, they should focus on eating a diet that’s made primarily of whole foods. Here are some great examples.

Whole Grains. Our brain relies on carbohydrates to give it enough energy to function. However, the best form of carbohydrates are the complex carbs found in whole grains, including brown rice, oatmeal, millet, whole wheat breads, and popcorn, which provide long-lasting energy.

Fatty Fish. Fat-rich fish like salmon, sardines, and herring have plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, which positively influence the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Increased levels of these brain chemicals can help boost our mood, mitigating symptoms of depression and other mental health conditions.

Leafy Greens. Leafy greens, which are rich in folate, are a great choice for any healthy diet. Increasing folate levels has been shown to help reduce levels of depression and fatigue. Spinach, arugula, chard, collard greens, and kale are all excellent foods that can be easily incorporated into salads, soups, and sandwiches.

Probiotics. Since our gut bacteria have such an outsized impact on our physical and mental health, improving them at every opportunity is a great way to naturally reduce anxiety and stress. Many people do this by consuming naturally cultured foods like kombucha, kimchi, tempeh, or yogurt.

If clients are living in food insecurity, and are not able to access these types of healthy foods, there may be community resources that can help, including their local food bank or farmers market. 

Through a holistic approach that includes dietary improvements and therapeutic interventions, mental health clinicians can help clients limit the symptoms of their mental illness and make positive steps towards a healthier future.

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