Are you a registered dietitian wanting to learn more about mental health nutrition?
This content is based on DSC’s Nutrition and Mental Health course created with support from Alexandra Kamp, RD. Medically reviewed by Olivia Farrow, RD, MHSc.
Learn more about nutrition and mental health, build your expertise, and get access to resources and nutrition and mental health handout pdfs with our nutrition and mental health course by becoming a member of the Dietitian Success Center.
A Dietitian’s Role in Mental Health
Why is mental health an important topic for dietitians?
Roughly 10.7% of our global population lives with a mental health disorder (1). It has been said that diet is as crucial to psychiatry as it is to endocrinology, gastroenterology, and cardiology (2).
How can a mental health dietitian help?
Nutrition interventions guided by a registered dietitian can (3):
- Lower the nutrition-related side effects from psychiatric medications
- Foster improved self-management of mental health conditions
- Improve overall mental health
- Reduce the risk of depression
Mental health versus mental illness
Although these words are commonly used interchangeably, it is important to understand they are not the same and lie on a continuum (4).
The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and can make a contribution to his or her community.” (5)
Some determinants of mental health include:
- Social determinants: stressful work environment, lifestyle, exclusion socially or based on gender
- Psychological determinants: one’s brain chemistry and personality traits
- Biological: including genetics and chemical imbalances in the brain
Mental illness is a diagnosable mental condition, including but not limited to (4):
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Substance abuse
These conditions alter one’s thinking, feelings, emotions, behaviors, and social interactions. Depression, one of the most common mental disorders, is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide.
Food and the Brain
Consuming enough energy, and the right nutrients are important for your brain to function properly.
About 60% of brain structure is made of fats (6). Fatty acids from the diet are important for the integrity and function of the brain. Essential fatty acids cannot be built by the body, and need to be consumed to be used by the brain.
The rest of the brain is made up of protein, carbohydrates, water, and salts, which are also things that we get from the diet (7).
Our nutrition and mental health course, included in your Dietitian Success Center membership, summarizes evidence-based interventions for nutrition and mental health including an overview of the brain structure, must-know neurotransmitters, and the connections between food and the brain.
Each human has a unique microbiome.
The microbiome is the unique set of microbes and their genetic components on and inside the human body (8).
Many factors make up your microbiome, including:
- Early nutrition and development
- Health status
There is a bi-directional link between our brain and gut microbiome (8). The brain-gut axis is a system of communications between the brain and the gut, connected by millions of nerves.
The brain and the gut contain neurons, which are cells responsible for telling your body exactly how to behave. 100 billion are located in the brain and 500 million in the gut. The gut is sometimes referred to as the second brain because of how many neurons are located in it.
Evidence continues to support how important gut health is to overall health and its influence on other areas of the body outside the gut.
Supporting Gut Health
How can we support our client’s gut health to in turn, improve brain health?
- Fiber: Eating a variety of high-fiber foods, including both soluble and insoluble fiber help to support a healthy gut.
- Prebiotics: Fibers that feed your gut bacteria when ingested are fermented by those bacteria.
- Probiotics: Improve your healthy gut bacteria, and may be beneficial for improving brain health. Probiotics have been found to affect the brain by potentially improving stress levels, anxiety, and depression symptoms
- Fermented Foods: A source of probiotics in the diet
There is a substantial amount of evidence linking inflammation to mental health disorder pathophysiology, especially depression (9).
A pro-inflammatory dietary pattern may increase the risk of depression. While an anti-inflammatory dietary pattern may decrease the risk of depression.
An example of an anti-inflammatory dietary pattern is the Mediterranean diet, which is discussed more thoroughly in the DSC nutrition and mental health course. You also get access to the Mediterranean diet and Anti-inflammatory eating handouts, and many more nutrition and mental health handout pdfs.
Key Nutrients in Mental Health Nutrition
Some important nutrients play a key role in mental health nutrition including:
- B Vitamins
- Vitamin D
These nutrients, their role in mental health and supplement indications are covered in depth in our nutrition and mental health course, included in your DSC membership.
Nutrient Deficiencies and Mental Illness
Common deficiencies found in those with mental illness include (10):
- B vitamins
- Vitamin D
- Minerals, especially magnesium
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Amino acids from proteins that are important for the synthesis of key neurotransmitters for mental health
Supporting Mental Health as a Dietitian
A Non-Diet Approach
When working with clients to support their mental health, applying a non-diet approach is very important. There are known benefits to a non-diet approach in improving patterns of disordered eating, self-confidence, and depression (11). Weight-focused interventions can do more harm emotionally, psychologically, and physically.
Mindful eating is a useful approach when working in mental health dietetics (12). Mindful eating means focusing on eating as an experience with a direct focus on the act of eating.
Your DSC membership includes ready-to-use handouts and a client-facing mindful eating handout pdf.
Nutrition plays a key role in supporting mental health. Registered dietitians can support clients with diagnosed mental illness to manage the nutrition-related side effects of medications and foster improved self-management, as well as support overall mental health. Nutritional interventions such as improving gut health, reducing inflammation, and correcting deficiencies can help to support a healthy brain.
At DSC, we make it easier for dietitians and dietetic students to build expertise in topics including mental health. Our nutrition and mental health course, ready-to-use client handouts, and community can help you feel more confident.
Dietitian Success Center is THE professional development resource for dietitians and dietetic students. Our mission is to make it easier for dietitians and dietetic students to build expertise. We do this through evidence-based online nutrition courses, community, and ready-to-use client handouts. Plus – we give you the tools to start and grow your dietitian private practice!
1. Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. “Mental Health,” Our World in Data, January 20, 2018, https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health.Sarris, Jerome et al. “Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry.” The Lancet. Psychiatry vol. 2,3 (2015): 271-4. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(14)00051-0
2. Li, Ye et al. “Dietary patterns and depression risk: A meta-analysis.” Psychiatry research, vol. 253 (2017): 373-382. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.04.020
3. Sharp, T. “What is the difference between mental health and mental illness?”. January 2022. Nib health funds limited.
4. “Mental Health,” World Health Organization, Accessed July 02, 2021, https://www.who.int/health-topics/mental-health#tab=tab_1.
5. Chang, Chia-Yu et al. “Essential fatty acids and human brain.” Acta neurologica Taiwanica vol. 18,4 (2009): 231-41.
6. “Brain Anatomy and How the Brain Works,” Johns Hopkins Medicine, Accessed July 02, 2021. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/anatomy-of-the-brain.
7. Clapp, Megan et al. “Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis.” Clinics and practice vol. 7,4 987. September 15, 2017, doi:10.4081/cp.2017.987
8. Tolkien, Katie, Steven Bradburn, and Chris Murgatroyd. “An anti-inflammatory diet as a potential intervention for depressive disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Clinical nutrition 38, no. 5 (2019): 2045-2052.
9. Lakhan, Shaheen E, and Karen F Vieira. “Nutritional therapies for mental disorders.” Nutrition journal vol. 7 2. 21 Jan. 2008, doi:10.1186/1475-2891-7-2
10. Clifford, Dawn et al. “Impact of non-diet approaches on attitudes, behaviors, and health outcomes: a systematic review.” Journal of nutrition education and behavior vol. 47,2 (2015): 143-55.e1. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2014.12.002
11. Davison KM, Ng E, Chandrasekera U, Seely C, Cairns J, Mailhot-Hall L, Sengmueller E, Jaques M, Palmer J, GrantMoore J for Dietitians of Canada. Promoting Mental Health through Healthy Eating and Nutritional Care: Executive Summary. Toronto: Dietitians of Canada, 2012. Access at: www.dietitians.ca/mentalhealth