Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD
Good nutrition is essential for overall health, but did you know that it also plays a crucial role in mental health?
Proper nutrition can improve mood, reduce symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression, and enhance cognitive function.
As awareness of the link between nutrition and mental health grows, more people are seeking the services of a nutritionist specialized in mental health.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the importance of nutrition in mental health and discuss the role of a nutritionist in supporting mental health.
We’ll also provide tips for finding a qualified nutritionist specialized in mental health and explain why it’s essential to prioritize nutrition for optimal mental wellness.
What is a Nutritionist Specializing in Mental Health?
A nutritionist is someone that utilizes food and dietary patterns to help manage health and medical conditions.
If a nutritionist does extra training or education on mental health, they are considered a specialist in that area.
Not all nutritionists are the same though, so you want to make sure you find someone with the education and training to back up their claims of expertise.
Definition and Qualifications
The truth is the term “nutritionist” is not protected. This means that someone could have spent a few minutes on Wikipedia researching “nutrition” and then call themself a nutritionist.
As long as this fictional person doesn’t slide into the very vague practice of “medical nutrition therapy,” there wouldn’t be much recourse against them if they gave untrue or damaging advice.
So when looking for a nutritionist that specializes in mental health, first make sure they have adequate nutrition education and training. In particular, look for a Registered Dietitian.
These nutritionists are obligated to provide education and treatment that is scientifically backed, is not harmful, and is individualized based on every aspect of each patient or client.
You’ll sometimes hear the term “nutritional psychiatry” or “nutritional While not technically a specialty, this term describes psychiatrists and psychologists that incorporate nutrition in their treatment plans. These doctors should still be utilizing dietitians in their practice.
Dietitian’s Role in Treating Mental Health Disorders
Treatment from a dietitian should always be considered an adjunct (or supplemental) therapy to treatment from a psychiatrist/psychologist and a therapist/counselor.
Nutrition should never be considered the primary therapy for a mental illness or other disorder.
How Nutrition Affects Mental Health
Nutrition plays a major role in your body’s inflammatory response. These inflammatory responses are normal but should decrease when the source of inflammation goes away.
Unfortunately, in some situations, inflammation becomes chronic and can lead to other conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and worsening mental health, including unstable mood and poor stress or anxiety management.
In nutrition for mental health, we identify foods and food patterns that can reduce inflammation, in a scientific matter, free from the influence of common fad diets you’ll find on social media.
In addition to using nutrition to lessen the severity of symptoms of mental illness, targeted nutrition techniques can actually improve your response to primary behavioral health therapeutic techniques.
The Relationship Between the Gut and the Brain
Nutrition and food choices also have a major impact on the health of your gut and the microbiome that resides there.
These beneficial bacteria, fungi, and viruses help our mental health in a variety of ways, including producing some feel good hormones and neurotransmitters that were previously thought to only be produced in the brain.
It is no coincidence that patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome often also experience depression and anxiety, and vice versa.
The Impact of Sugar and Ultra-Processed Foods on Mental Health
Over-emphasis in the diet of sugar and ultra-processed foods can lead to chronic inflammation and worsening gut health.
This leads to symptoms of mental health conditions becoming more severe and more difficult to manage.
The Importance of a Balanced Diet on Mental Health
We must remember the importance of balance in our food patterns.
Obsessive restriction of foods considered “bad” can lead to increased feelings of stress and anxiety and can eventually lead to an eating disorder.
Instead, we need to find a way to incorporate all foods in a way that manages our health and allows us to live a happy life.
The Role of a Dietitian Nutritionist in Mental Health
A registered dietitian nutritionist can help an individual choose foods 80-90% of the time that is actively health-promoting but also fit in those foods that we eat purely for the joy and enjoyment of eating them.
Health promotion and food enjoyment are both important in achieving balance and improvement in our health.
What Does Treatment Look Like?
Every nutritionist will run their sessions a bit differently. However, there are some similarities as there are key pieces of information about each client that is required to be successful. Think of the work of a dietitian as nutrition counseling rather than just information giving.
Initial Assessment of a Client’s Diet and Lifestyle
In my practice, my initial assessment of a client starts before I even sit down with them. My clients fill out a New Client Questionnaire that allows me to learn the basics of their medical history so that when I do meet them, we can head straight into getting to know each other on a more personal level.
For me, these questions range from the boring family medical history, medical and mental health diagnoses, medications and supplements, and the frequency certain foods are eaten to the more abstract such as your relationship with food and body image.
During our first session, we delve more deeply into those questions, particularly those regarding my patient’s relationship with food, the symptoms they are most concerned with, and their short and long-term goals.
Micro and Macro Nutrient Recommendations
Macronutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins) each have a role in food satiety as well as hormone and neurotransmitter production, including estrogen, testosterone, leptin, ghrelin, serotonin, melatonin, adrenaline, and dopamine.
Various micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) have been shown to have potent effects on mood and mental health. Some worsen mental health when we are deficient, and others improve mental health when taken above our normal intake levels.
I use a client’s food frequency descriptions, their attitudes and beliefs about foods, and a 3-day sample of their food intake to determine which nutrients might be a concern for them.
Gut Health Support
Individuals with chronic intestinal distress (bloating, pain, constipation, diarrhea), with or without a diagnosis, have even more to consider.
We have to identify what foods, if any, are causing the symptoms and what steps, if any, the person is willing and ready to take.
Elimination diets, particularly low FODMAP, are very good at identifying food triggers for IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) but may not be appropriate for some patients.
Monetary concerns, lack of time to cook, lack of kitchen skills, difficulty with decision-making, poor food and nutrition education, and disordered eating patterns can all make these elimination trials ineffective or dangerous.
Other times, a lack of variety in the diet can be a cause of poor gut health, and that needs to be addressed in a way that is sustainable for the individual.
All of these factors, and more, are important to the assessment and nutrition treatment plan for a dietitian nutritionist that specializes in mental health.
In addition to food and nutrition, other lifestyle factors should be addressed.
This includes but is not necessarily limited to sleep, physical activity, time spent outdoors, dedicated stress management, social activity, smoking, and alcohol or other substance use.
Creation of a Customized Meal Plan Based on Individual Needs
This is where it is important to seek a credentialed RDN rather than just anyone who calls themselves a nutritionist. Any individualized meal plan, rather than generalities, requires education and training in nutrient analysis.
I don’t write specific meal plans for my clients. There is no way I can create a meal plan for an individual that encompasses everything there is about them.
Factors such as culture, family meals, food preferences, allergies and intolerances, kitchen skills, grocery budgets, and more all go into the food choices that we make.
Instead, we make goals that incorporate the nutrition we need without dictating that the client eat exactly what I chose for them.
Monitoring and Adjusting the Meal Plan as Needed
For me and my clients, this looks like re-evaluating the goals that set during the last session. Did they find the goals too easy? Too difficult? Did they meet their goals but still struggle to do so?
Because we’re looking to create sustainable behavior changes and not partaking in a temporary diet, we want to not only meet our goals but sustain them long enough that they are habits before moving on.
Providing Education on the Link Between Nutrition and Mental Health
My first session tends to be the heaviest on education. There is a lot of misinformation regarding health and nutrition on the internet, especially on social media.
A lot of my clients have internalized poor diet information and have trouble separating nutrition “facts” they learned from their parents, health teachers, fad diets, and bad websites from actual nutrition science.
For example, did you know that a sweet potato and a regular old “white” Russet potato are almost identical in carbs, fiber, and calories? Few clients believe me the first time we talk about this.
Sometimes, education isn’t so much nutrition-focused in the beginning. Instead, we talk about mindful eating, evaluating hunger and fullness cues, why it’s important to chew your food, or other food topics such as grocery shopping, budgeting, and basic cooking skills.
Everyone has a different starting point. And it’s my job to help bridge where you are and where you want to go.
Finding a Nutritionist Specializing in Mental Health
In the world of science, research on nutrition and mental health is pretty new.
Additionally, outside of dietitians that are eating disorder specialists, there aren’t any certifications or other specialist criteria for dietitians that want to specialize in mental health. Making these nutritionists hard to find.
Ultimately, don’t be afraid to ask where a dietitian nutritionist learned and practiced nutrition science for mental healthcare.
Research and Recommendations From Healthcare Providers
A search of the web should net you some options. You could search for something like “mental health dietitian”. You could also try to narrow it down by adding “near me,” though this may limit you some.
Evaluate the websites of the search results and see if anyone resonates with you.
Another option is to ask for a referral from your primary care physician, therapist, or PsychMD for a dietitian recommendation. They would be more in tune with dietitians with this specialty.
The Importance of Credentials and Qualifications
As already mentioned, the term nutritionist doesn’t really mean a lot all on its own. Look for someone that has a degree to back up the information that they’re sharing.
Even better, look for someone that has had an apprenticeship or internship to train to use that information in a real-life setting. Dietitians and Diet Techs (RD, RDN, or DTR) have this type of training.
There is no specific certification or specialty designation for a dietitian that specializes in behavioral or mental health, outside of an eating disorder specialist.
When seeking nutrition care for a mental health disorder don’t be nervous to ask how your potential dietitian learned the information and techniques utilized, because unfortunately, they didn’t learn it in school.
You want to look for someone that has had empathy and harm reduction training, experience working within behavioral healthcare with other specialists, and that has learned how to deliver information and interventions in a trauma-informed and individualized way.
The Role of Insurance and Financial Considerations
Unfortunately, we live in a society with a shit healthcare system. And an even worse mental healthcare system. Even worse, Texas is ranked the worst state in the US for mental healthcare.
All that to say: financial considerations of nutrition care are important to consider. Dietitians, even those that specialize in mental health, fall under medical health insurance coverage, not mental healthcare.
Insurance coverage for medical nutrition therapy varies by state, by company, and by individual plans. That being said, most cover at least 3 sessions. Medicare ONLY covers MNT for diabetes and kidney disease, and only with a doctor’s referral.
If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have medical insurance, your insurance won’t pay, or your chosen practitioner doesn’t accept insurance, make sure to get a “whole picture” idea of what the costs could be.
Every practitioner has their own rates based on a variety of factors. But just knowing their per-hour rate may not be the whole story. How long, or how many sessions, can you expect? Do they offer a sliding scale or equity fee for patients in need?
Make sure to get all the information before going in.
Nutrition is a critical component of mental health, and a nutritionist specializing in mental health can play a vital role in supporting optimal mental wellness.
Recap of the Importance of Seeking a Nutritionist Specialized in Mental Health
By addressing nutrient deficiencies, promoting a balanced diet, and supporting gut health, a nutritionist can help improve mood, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and enhance cognitive function.
If you’re looking for a nutritionist who specialized in mental health, it’s important to do your research and seek out a qualified professional with the right credentials and experience.
Prioritize Nutrition for Optimal Mental Health
By prioritizing nutrition and seeking the support of a qualified nutritionist, you can take an important step toward achieving optimal mental wellness.
Final Thoughts and Additional Resources for Seeking a Nutritionist
If you think that nutrition intervention may improve your mental health, there are some resources.
- Dr. Drew Ramsey’s Book “Eating to Beat Depression and Anxiety” is a decent attempt at dispersing the evidence in a non-sensational way. It’s actually one of the few nutrition books written by a doctor that isn’t totally biased crap. However, the 6-week plan at the end is a bit accelerated compared to how people could actually implement his ideas.
- The Psychobiotic Revolution is a fantastic overview of the state of research on the link between gut health and mental health.
- Felice Jacka is the premier researcher on this topic. Her book is Brain Changer. I have it, but haven’t read it yet. With that said, I’ve heard her speak a few times, and she’s fantastic.
- If you like podcasts, do a quick search for Drew Ramsey, Felice Jacka, or John Cryan. They’re all great and have done multiple interviews on various podcasts.
All the information in the world doesn’t necessarily make you implement any changes. Seek a dietitian that is trained in helping with behavior changes. You’ll likely need a series of sessions to start making meaningful changes. To find a dietitian:
- Search the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Provider Search.
- They’ll probably have their areas of interest listed in their profile
- Use your insurance company’s Find a Provider search function.
- You’ll have to go through each one to determine their specialty.
- Use your favorite search engine to find “dietitian near me”
- Again, you’ll have to look through them to find who is qualified for your situation.