In the 20th Century, we have seen global shifts in dietary intakes, with people eating more sugary, fatty, high-energy food and snack foods, and a decrease in fibre-rich and nutrient-dense foods, especially in younger generations and those who are ‘busy’ and looking for convenience.
But what impact does diet have on mental health?
Today I want to explore the latest research that links diet and mental health and discuss some opportunities for health coaching in this space.
We know that many ‘common’ mental health disorders are associated with chronic health conditions. We also know that lifestyle behaviours including eating habits are intrinsically linked to physical health. Recent research is defining these relationships and revealing opportunities to improve mental health through diet.
Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging field that recognises the consistent link between better-quality diets and a reduced risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.
Most of us are familiar with the longevity and good mental health associations with Blue Zone diets – think the centenarians from Ikaria and Okinawa – and this association is supported by research. Here are some examples.
A study of Norwegian men and women who followed a traditional Norwegian diet reported more favourable mental health compared to those on a typical Western diet, even after adjustment for variables including age, education, physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption (1).
An Australian study of 8,660 healthy men and women showed that a Mediterranean-style diet was associated with lower psychological distress as measured by a K10 score (2).
A systematic review of both observational and interventional studies of nutrition and bipolar disorder found that the intake of certain nutrients is associated with a reduction of bipolar disorder symptoms. Those nutrients include omega-3 fatty acids, folic acid and zinc. Promising results were also indicated for coenzyme Q10 and probiotics (3).
Many studies show that lower socioeconomic circumstances partly explain poor eating habits and depressive symptoms, but there is also evidence that depression is directly associated with long-term exposure to an unhealthy diet, independent of socioeconomic status (4).
Medication, exercise and psychological intervention are well-known approaches that play an important role in treating and managing mental health disorders.
The research findings from nutritional psychiatry show that healthy eating is another impactful ingredient in maintaining brain health and mental health. It is important that we recognise these links with the rise in mental health disorders and body weight during the Covid 19 pandemic, and, that we apply these learnings in practice.
To that end, it is promising to see that the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry guidelines (2020) and the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (UK) guidelines (2022) now recommend dietary improvement and other lifestyle modifications as a foundational treatment for mood disorders.
This is a positive starting point to augment the existing approaches to mental health. Yet there is still more that can be done on a day-to-day basis to improve eating habits and food choices toward better health, lifestyle and productivity.
Dietary changes typically happen in our own households or via a medical setting, but there are also opportunities for workplaces to be involved in improving the eating habits of the workforce for better mental well-being, productivity, focus, concentration and general health.
These days, it is an employee market with thousands of job vacancies on the market. This means that employees are looking for workplace benefits to entice them into a workplace, or to make it worth their while staying in an existing workplace.
Any opportunity to improve health could be seen as a value add and a sign that the employer cares about their workforce.
What might this look like in a workplace?
Well, assuming you would do a needs assessment first and find out what sort of service is desired, there are a few ways you can package up your services for a corporate market. In other words, there are a variety of ways you can add value to workplaces in terms of employee nutrition.
Firstly, educational and coaching programs can be offered to any employees to help them understand the benefits of healthy eating and to empower employees to develop healthier eating habits. If you don’t have a dietetics or nutrition qualification, education can be based on published government guidelines in an interactive, workshop-style arrangement.
If you’re working with rural or remote workplaces where the workplace provides meals, one offering you could make is to help them develop a strategy to improve the nutritional quality of foods on offer at the workplace and reduce the availability of unhealthy options. This is an important consideration when employees don’t have access to healthy food other than at the workplace.
Routine medical clearance and fitness for work checks can monitor body weight and waist-to-hip ratio as one indicator of nutritional health and can facilitate referral to a dietician or health coach to support behaviour change. Partnering with the EAP or medical service that the employer uses is another way to add value to the company.
In some cases, running workplace challenges can also offer individuals the chance to improve their nutrition in a supportive team environment.
Of course, individual coaching is also appropriate as an on-sell from or adjunct to any of these types of initiatives.
The evidence is clear – eating habits play a significant role in brain health and mental health.
And aside from medical and psychological support programs, there are many other opportunities for coaches to help organisation to improve the eating habits of their workforce, and consequently, improve their quality of life, health and work performance.
If you are a coach running a business that focuses on either nutrition, mental health or both, there are opportunities for you to approach workplaces to implement education and coaching strategies that will boost employee health, well-being, focus, productivity and performance.
Citing the statistics and research is a great way to position your services to employers and gain their buy-in. It answers the ‘what’s in it for me’ question – why should I invest in your services?
Today we covered some of the groundbreaking research in nutritional psychiatry that demonstrates the links between nutrition and mental health.
I also talked about some opportunities for employers to have an impact on employee well-being – especially important in times when employers are trying desperately to retain their talent.
By presenting the facts and figures on the impact of nutrition on mental health and performance, and by outlining affordable opportunities for employers to offer a value add, you can position your coaching business to enter the corporate space more easily.
If you have questions on this episode, hit me up on my contact page.
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