Health/Wellness, Patient Blog | Feb 28 2023

Food and behavioral health: What is the connection?

Dietitian talks to patient about food and behavioral health

Whether we are stressed, seeking comfort, or feeling down, our emotions can have an influential role on our eating patterns, food choices and cravings. Is this just a coincidence, or is there an underlying scientific link between behavioral health and nutrition?  

The food and mood connection 

According to the World Health Organization, over 300 million people suffer from depression, one of the most common behavioral health disorders in the world. Through studying the adherence to healthy eating patterns such as the Mediterranean diet, researchers have found a connection between diet and mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

High fiber intake, portion control of fats and carbohydrates, and limited consumption of animal-based products, have been shown to reduce general inflammation, which aids in preserving brain health. The pathways by which food affects our brain are complex and continue to be explored.

Emerging research speculates that people living with certain behavioral health disorders may benefit from following a healthy diet. Registered dietitians can help reduce symptoms associated with these disorders through carefully guided nutrition behavior and diet modifications.   

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What is 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 may work in several types of settings such as inpatient acute care, psychiatric facilities, early intervention programs, and outpatient clinics. The behavioral health dietitian works as a member of an interdisciplinary team to provide support to patients, their families, and caretakers. This allows the patients to restore wellness to their bodies and minds with the help of good nutrition.   

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 carbohydrates, protein and high-fiber foods can increase the body’s availability of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a “feel good” chemical that is essential for mood regulation. High-protein foods such as fish, chicken, beef, turkey, tofu, and beans support higher levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. These chemicals found in the brain enhance mood, motivation, and concentration. Fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense foods that support our immune system and have been shown to improve physical and mental health.  

Primary nutrients for mental health 

There are several micronutrient deficiencies that have been associated with depression, anxiety, and other behavioral health disorders.  

Micronutrient deficiencies that can impact behavioral health disorders:  

  • Folate
  • Vitamin B12
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Vitamin B6
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin C
  • Potassium
  • Zinc
  • Thiamine
  • Selenium 

The above deficiencies can often be resolved through prescribed dietary changes and/or nutritional supplementation. A blood work panel is recommended when a micronutrient deficit is suspected. A full diet history and nutritional assessment may be used to formulate an appropriate nutrition plan that can help improve serum levels. Micronutrient deficiencies should be discussed with the interdisciplinary team to rule out any physiological causes.  

Eating for optimal health 

A healthy diet focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and unsaturated fats can positively impact both your physical and mental health. Cutting back on the intake of high-fat meats, sugars, and processed foods allows room for more diverse nutrient-dense foods that support a healthy brain. Registered dietitians can help by providing individualized nutrition recommendations to support a healthy lifestyle and mental wellbeing.   

Dietitians On Demand is a nationwide staffing and recruiting company for registered dietitians, specializing in short-term, temporary and permanent-hire positions in acute care, long term care and food service positions. We’re dedicated to dietitians and helping them enhance their practice and excel in the workplace. Check out our job openings, request your coverage, or visit our store today! 

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.  
Sarah Hammaker, RDN

About Sarah Hammaker

Sarah Hammaker, RDN is a clinical dietitian working primarily in long term care and acute rehabilitation hospital settings in PA. She holds certificates of training in the areas of Adult Weight Management as well as Integrative and Functional Nutrition. Outside of work, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband and their four children. She loves running and being outdoors. Her hobbies include reading, planting and shopping.

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