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The connection nutrition has with mental and behavioral health

May 11, 2023

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a time to explore mental and behavioral health more closely. Not just this month, but on a regular basis, it’s important we continue to expand our understanding of these health conditions and find ways that can help people with mental and behavioral health conditions with treatment and prevention. One part of this approach is through good nutrition.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 50 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. The National Institutes of Health estimate that only about 15 percent of people with serious mental illness receive minimally adequate treatment. Lack of treatment can lead to poor outcomes, including physical health impacts. Ongoing research continues to reveal a close link between mental and physical health and shows mental health disorders have a strong association with the progression and outcome of serious chronic diseases and health conditions. Inadequate treatment also sends more people to seek care in the emergency department (ED). Mental illness-related ED visits are the biggest driver of avoidable ED visits, at a cost of $4.6 billion per year.  Since poor mental health can lead to physical health issues and vice versa, we must look for ways to nourish both the mind and the body. 

The role nutrition plays in mental health
Nutrition is key driver of overall health, including brain health. We have seen evidence that certain elements in the diet influence molecular systems and mechanisms that maintain mental function. For example, omega-3 fatty acids help support cognitive processes and synaptic function in the brain. In recent years, there has been growing research focused on how diet can improve mental and behavioral health. Many researchers are currently looking at the connection between diet and depression. 

A study found that individuals who ate a diet that included ultra-processed foods were at a higher risk of mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. Ultra-processed foods often contain ingredients and additives you wouldn’t find in home kitchens and tend to be

  • High in fat
  • High in sugar
  • High in refined carbohydrates

A decreased risk of depression was revealed in a study where a Mediterranean diet was followed, including the following nourishing foods:

  • Fish
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Olive oil 
  • Plant foods 

Healthy eating can also help people with chronic diseases to manage their conditions and prevent complications, which in turn, can positively affect their mental health. 

Making nutrition part of the solution
Inequities in our society lead to disparities in access to drivers of health and health status, and are also known to influence mental health outcomes. Low economic status, unemployment, strained familial relationships, unsafe neighborhoods and racism can strongly impact mental health. 

People with severe mental illness are more likely to suffer from food insecurity.  Without access to nutritious foods, people are more vulnerable to infectious diseases, poor oral health, heart disease, hypertension and chronic pain, and are more frequently diagnosed with multiple chronic conditions. As we continue to find ways to address food insecurity and the social drivers behind hunger, we can highlight the important role nutrition plays in preventing and treating mental health disorders to assist more individuals who struggle with mental illness, as well as their health care teams, to improve their overall well-being. 

Supporting people with mental and behavioral health disorders
Adding a nutritious diet to a holistic treatment plan can help improve mental and behavioral health and lower the risk and severity of chronic diseases. Feeding both the mind and body with balanced nutrition is key and can help more people improve their physical and mental health while lowering their total cost of care and boosting their medication adherence and engagement with health care providers.

Learn more in our white paper: The Interconnection with Mental and Behavioral Health. You’ll discover more on how nutrition and mental health are connected and how programs like home-delivered meals are making a positive impact on the lives of those living with mental and behavioral health conditions.