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Food and Behavioral Health Disorders: What is the Connection?

Have you ever wondered why you can’t wait to reach for the container of ice cream after a bad day at work or why indulging in a heavy meal of meatloaf and mashed potatoes gives you a feeling of comfort when your mood is down in the dumps? Then you may also be aware that some people will turn away from food when they are stressed or lose their appetite completely when they are anxious. These are all too common ways food and mood are related. Is there something scientific to it or is it just a coincidence?

The Food and Mood Connection

According to the World Health Organization, greater than 300 million people suffer from depression which is considered the most common behavioral health disorder in the world. Researchers have found that there is enough evidence to link diet and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety by studying the sustained adherence to healthy diet patterns such as the Mediterranean diet or other low fat, low carbohydrate, high fiber, mostly vegetarian meal plans and analyzing the outcomes of inflammation in humans and its effect on our brains. The pathways by which food affects our brain is complex and more knowledge is needed in this area, but there have been positive results in recent research that points to speculation that people living with certain behavioral health disorders may benefit from following a healthy diet and reduce symptoms with a carefully guided approach to improved nutrition from a Registered Dietitian.

What’s a behavioral health dietitian?

A Behavioral Health Dietitian is a trained medical professional that specializes in providing medical nutrition therapy to patients who are living with a variety of behavioral health disorders. They work in many different settings such as in-patient, psychiatric facilities, early intervention and out-patient settings to name a few. The behavioral health dietitian works as a member of an interdisciplinary team to provide support to patients, their families and caretakers to ensure the patient has all the resources needed to meet their nutritional needs and restore wellness to their bodies and minds.

Types of Behavioral Health Disorders

Depression Substance Abuse

Anxiety Intellectual Developmental Disorders (IDD)

Bipolar Disorder Autism

Attention Deficit (ADD/ADHD) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

How does nutrition affect behavior?

Eating a meal that combines complex carbohydrates, protein and fibrous produce is known to increase the body’s availability of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the feel-good chemical that is essential for mood regulation. If we break the meal down and look at protein alone; eating foods like fish, chicken, beef, turkey, tofu and beans support higher levels of dopamine and norepinephrine which are chemicals found in the brain that enhance mood, motivation and concentration. Fruits and vegetables are nutrient dense foods that keep our immune functions working well and have been shown to improve overall health, both physical and mental.

Primary Nutrients for Mental Health

There are several vitamins and minerals that when consumed in inadequate amounts over time, a person can become deficient and begin to experience effects that are often associated with depression, anxiety and other behavioral health disorders. The most common nutrients connected with brain health are:

Folate Vitamin B12

Omega 3 fatty acids Vitamin B6

Magnesium Vitamin C

Potassium Zinc

Thiamine Selenium

These nutrients can be increased by prescribed dietary changes and/or nutritional supplementation. Blood work is the best way to determine whether someone has adequate levels or is at risk for deficiency. A full diet history and nutritional assessment may be used as well so that an appropriate plan can be designed to increase nutrient levels to a normal range.

Eating for Optimal Health

In summary, a healthy diet consisting of ample amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and non-saturated fats can increase not only your physical health, but your mental health as well. Reducing the amount of high fat meats, sugars and processed foods will make room for adequate nutrient consumption so that ideal levels can be achieved to prevent vitamin deficiency that may lead to poor brain health. A registered dietitian can help by assessing your diet history and food intake and make recommendations on how best to achieve the healthiest lifestyle for your behavioral health needs.


Food and Mood: How Do Diet and Nutrition Affect Mental Wellbeing? Available at Accessed on 1/10/23.

You are What you Eat: The Connection Between Food and Mood. Available at Accessed on 1/10/23.

The Role of Registered Dietitian Nutritionists in Behavioral Health. Available at Accessed on 1/10/23.

Anti-Depressant Foods: An Evidenced Based Nutrient Profiling System for Depression. Available at Accessed on 1/10/23.

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