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The Dietary Advice You Give Patients May Do Little to Improve Mental Health

You’ve likely heard that an unhealthy diet can aggravate mood disorders. But, according to new research, common beliefs about the resounding health effects of certain foods may be just that — beliefs.

The study published in European Neuropsychopharmacology highlights how little we know about whether specific foods can harm or improve mental health. It notes that “scientific findings demonstrating the unequivocal link between nutrition and mental health are only beginning to emerge.”

What Did the Study Find?

As lead author Suzanne Dickinson, PhD, explained in a statement: “There is increasing evidence of a link between a poor diet and the worsening of … anxiety and depression. However, many common beliefs about the health effects of certain foods are not supported by solid evidence.”

For example, while consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables can improve happiness and well-being, the evidence varies for individual health conditions, Dr. Dickson tells Florence Health.

What Does the Study Mean for Your Patients?

So should providers recommend certain foods to patients?

“We know that a good diet is associated with better mental health in general. Almost certainly malnutrition impacts on brain function,” Dr. Dickinson explains. That said, “It’s awfully difficult to give specific dietary advice,” she adds.

Depending on the patient and goals, however, the research may provide some insight. A lack of vitamin B12, for instance, can impact cognition, and ketogenic diets appear to be beneficial for epilepsy.

Still, Dr. Dickinson emphasizes that providers should “recognize how difficult it is to get conclusive data showing the importance of specific foods or dietary components. Moreover, we lack knowledge of how they act on the brain … and what to change in the diet to sustain good mental health.”

Another challenge: While certain foods may affect mental health, it’s unclear exactly what about the food prompts such an effect. It’s certainly an opening for future research.

Ultimately, the takeaway for your patients is this, Dr. Dickinson says: “Support eating healthy — although defining ‘healthy’ is very difficult.”


Nutritional psychiatry: Towards improving mental health by what you eat, European Neuropsychopharmacology.

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