What Is Nutritional Psychology, Exactly?

This field takes the concept of mindful eating to a whole new level — and, in doing so, makes caring for your mental health downright delicious.

a collage showing a model licking a spoon while a thought bubble shows they are thinking about roasted vegetables
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When it comes to eating well, many people turn to nutritionists for help. After all, these specialists are trained to understand how certain foods impact your body and what sort of nutrients you need to stay healthy (among many other things, of course). But practicing good nutrition obviously involves more than just eating certain foods. It's also all about the way you look at food, the choices you make, and how those foods impact your overall well-being — and that's just scratching the surface.

While a good nutritionist can help you in all of those areas, there's also a field that focuses solely on the mental aspects of eating and how food can impact your brain, called nutritional psychology. Never heard of it? Neither have a lot of people — but it's time to change that. Here's what you need to know about nutritional psychology and its focus on "brain food."

Nutritional Psychology and Nutritional Psychiatry, Explained

First things first: Nutritional psychology is a relatively new area of study, and as such, the exact definition is a little vague. Still, however, the American Psychological Association describes nutritional psychology as an interdisciplinary field that examines the role that nutrition (dietary patterns, nutrient consumption or lack thereof, etc.) plays in the causes and treatments of mental health problems and mental health overall. And the same is true of nutritional psychiatry. The main difference between the two? Psychologists (typically experts with a Ph.D. or Psy.D.) cannot prescribe medication, while psychiatrists (M.D.) can. (That said, every practitioner has a slightly different approach within their practice, too.)

Nutritional psychology "is a burgeoning field that harnesses the power of healthy whole foods and nutrients to support mental health," says Uma Naidoo, M.D., a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, and author of This Is Your Brain On Food. "In doing so, nutritional psychiatry strives to support a vast array of psychiatric conditions, from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and OCD through intentional and evidence-based dietary changes," she adds.

"Nutritional psychology [also] focuses on the connection between food, diet, mood, and cognition," says nutritional psychologist Amanda Baten, Ph.D., founder of the Center for Integrative Therapies in New York City. "Optimal mental health is impacted by what we eat, how we eat, and how this impacts the body and brain," she explains. For example, if you're not getting enough of certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12 (found in tuna and dairy products, among other foods), you can end up having trouble concentrating, throwing your whole thinking process off.

Now, let's be clear: A nutritional approach to mental health doesn't replace more traditional treatment methods such as medications and talk therapy, says nutritional psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, M.D., author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety. Instead, it can complement those treatments. "For some people, food can be a frontline treatment. But do I think every mental health problem can be solved with food? For sure not. Some people need medications and no amount of 'brain food' will change that," he says.

How Nutritional Psychology Works

Because there is no set guidebook for nutritional psychology, it can look a little different for every practitioner.

Dr. Naidoo says the basics lie in what she calls the "gut-brain romance." ICYDK, there are two primary ways (that are currently known, at least) in which the stomach communicates with the brain. First, there's the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain along each side of the body, down the neck, along the esophagus, and to the abdomen, according to the National Library of Medicine. This nerve acts as a "two-way highway...constantly sending signals and chemicals back and forth between the brain and gut," explains Dr. Naidoo. Meaning, not only can the brain can affect the gut, but the gut — and, thus, what you eat — can also impact the brain.

Then there's the fact that the gut produces over 90 percent of your body's serotonin and about 50 percent of your body's dopamine — two neurotransmitters responsible for regulating your mood. So, it stands to reason that when your gut is out of whack (think: a microbiome imbalance caused by poor nutrition), the neurotransmitters aren't produced as efficiently, thereby negatively affecting your mental health.

Nutritional psychologists and psychiatrists provide patients with education around nutrition, and about how you eat influences your emotions, the way you think, and your overall experiences, says Baten. "Then we take a deeper dive into the personal triggers for eating poorly and develop better patterns of thinking and better coping strategies for stress," she says. "This is a holistic approach to optimal mental health," explains Baten.

In the case of Dr. Naidoo's practice, a patient will first undergo a screening process. "For example, if someone is acutely mentally ill, they may need more immediate urgent treatment first. Nutrition is always part of the solution, but can be added on once their condition is more stable. Safety first in mental health as with all things medical," she explains. From there, she'll conduct a nutritional psychiatry evaluation, order any appropriate tests (i.e. blood work to determine certain nutrient levels), and put together "a personalized psychiatry treatment plan for the person to follow," describes Dr. Naidoo.

As for what treatment looks like exactly, that depends on the practitioner. Some sessions might be more along the lines of psychotherapy or talk therapy wherein the patient receives counseling on coping mechanisms for dealing with their mental health ailments and strategies for remedying them through nutrition. Others might focus more on ways to tailor your diet and alter your eating habits to best address your mental health concerns. And then if you see a psychiatrist, it's possible that the pro will prescribe medications as a means for treating your mental illness — that is, of course, depending on the severity.

Throughout the entire process and ongoing treatment, Dr. Naidoo operates in tandem with any other providers to ensure that the patient's nutrition-related treatment won't impact any other elements of their health and that the patient is also receiving other necessary mental health care. (Remember: Nutritional psychiatry does focus on the role nutrition can play in your brain, but tailoring your diet is not necessarily the only way to better your mental health.)

Overall, this approach to wellness requires someone to have an advanced knowledge of psychology, neuroscience, and nutrition, notes Baten. Ideally, they'd have a psychology-related degree, such as a Ph.D., Psy.D., or an M.D. And while there isn't an official degree for nutritional psychiatry or nutritional psychology, the Center for Nutritional Psychology offers an online certificate program in the area of study through John F. Kennedy University.

Why Nutritional Psychology Is So Important

Better health, mood, brain function, and the ability to make better decisions about the foods that properly fuel your body and brain are all pros of engaging in nutritional psychology, according to Dr. Baten.

The modern American diet, which is heavy in processed foods and meats, "is very damaging to our physical health, but the same is true for our mental health," says Dr. Ramsey. In fact, a 2017 meta-analysis found high consumption of these foods along with refined grains, sweetened foods and beverages, high-fat dairy products, and other foods — all of which constitute "the Western dietary pattern" — to be associated with a higher risk of depression.

Nutritional psychology "helps people pay more attention to their mental health and use food as one of the tools to take care of it," says Dr. Ramsey. For example, many people have likely heard that they should pay attention to B vitamins for mental health, but aren't exactly sure why and which ones (out of the eight total B vitamins) to focus on, says Dr. Naidoo. Working with a nutritional psychologist or psychiatrist, however, can offer patients the opportunity to learn more about, for example, vitamin B9 or folate, as low levels of folate are associated with depression, she explains. She would then potentially recommend a patient struggling with depression start by incorporating more leafy greens into their diet as part of their treatment.

What's more, this field also "allows us to be more preventative and strategic with our mental health care," adds Dr. Ramsey. Take, for example, vitamins E and B12 as well as long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. These three nutrients are often helpful for brain health, he notes. More specifically, they've been shown to help bolster cognitive functioning, and, as such, nutritional psychology (or psychiatry) often encourages patients to be more conscious of such nutrients depending on their struggle(s) and as they age. A patient dealing with brain fog and depression might be told to up their intake of vitamin B12 via either animal proteins or supplements. Meanwhile, the recommendation for an older person might involve incorporating more, say, avocado (rich in vitamin E) and salmon (loaded with omega-3 fatty acids) into their regimen, as research has linked both of these nutrients with reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

"We need more tools in our toolbox to help with our mental well-being," says Dr. Naidoo. "Research has shown that medications work for some but not for everyone, and some remain suffering with symptoms even while taking prescription medications," she adds. And the techniques used and treatments prescribed in nutritional psychology or psychiatry can help do just that.

"We can begin to engage in how we keep our moods up and stable, but also really rich emotional meanings of food and what food means to us," says Dr. Ramsey. "Food really becomes a very powerful tool in health care," he notes.

Are There Any Cons to Nutritional Psychology?

As with everything in life, when there's a pro, there's likely a con (or two) — and this is no different for nutritional psychology and psychiatry.

There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, and that can mean that everyone's reactions to certain foods can vary, says Dr. Naidoo. "Not all healthy foods may be healthy for you," she notes. "One example is the simple grapefruit. While a delicious and nutritious citrus fruit, it also interacts with certain liver enzymes and can change the levels of some prescription medications," explains Dr. Naidoo. (This is exactly why she, as mentioned above, works in tandem with a patient's other health care providers.)

Meanwhile, "there are no specific credentials, certification, or training in this field," points out Deborah Cohen, D.C.N., R.D.N., associate professor in the Department of Clinical and Preventive Nutrition Sciences at Rutgers University. While many people who call themselves nutritional psychologists or nutritional psychiatrists actually have psychology or psychiatry degrees, it's not technically a requirement. "One can call themselves a nutritional psychologist, but the training and background may be a bit iffy," says Cohen. And on that note...

How to Find a Nutritional Psychologist or Psychiatrist

It can be tricky, especially since "the field is young," admits Dr. Naidoo. Because of this, simply try searching online for "nutritional psychologist" and your area to see who you can find — just keep in mind that the only people who are true psychologists and psychiatrists are those with a Ph.D., Psy.D., or M.D., recommends Baden. And as with finding any other health care provider, you can also ask your general practitioner or another doctor for referrals.

Dr. Ramsey encourages people to give nutritional psychology or nutritional psychiatry a try. "People should know that this is about empowering them to find joy in nutrient density to support their brain health," he says. "Your brain is a growing organ and choices you make every day, like the foods you eat and how you move your body, greatly impact the health of your brain," adds Dr. Ramsey.

The bottom line? "No matter what other treatments you are using, you have to eat every day — so why not maximize the impact of the food you eat to improve your mental well-being?" says Dr. Naidoo.

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