Here’s how dietitians can help our mental wellbeing

We all know eating healthy food is important, but it’s not just our physical health at stake.

Diet is so important to our mental health that Accredited Practising Dietitians (APD) are pushing to be officially recognised as mental health practitioners.

How dietitians can help

Research proves diet can be used to help treat anxiety and depression, in collaboration with existing therapies and medications.

Deakin University Food and Mood Centre deputy director Adrienne O’Neill told The New Daily their study found a 30 per cent remission rate of depression symptoms over a 12-week trial.

The results did not correlate to weight loss or change in body shape, and participants also saved about $25 per week on their grocery bills.

Food and Mood Centre APD Tetyana Rocks told TND dietitians can provide “individualised, evidence-based, recommendations” suited to mental and physical health.

Simple things like whether or not someone owns a microwave or their energy levels could alter the advice.

What to eat for better mental health

“In general, what we understand is that a diet or way of eating beneficial to mental health comes in a variety of styles,” Dr Rocks said.

That included, for example, a Mediterranean-style diet.

Foods that help our mental health. Photo: Getty

The ‘gut-brain axis’

APD and Dietitians Australia spokesperson Nicole Dynan explained the role of the vagus nerve in the gut-brain axis.

“The vagus nerve is the biggest nerve in the body, which is connecting the gut and the brain, and it has signals going both ways along that pathway,” Ms Dynan said.

“You might have noticed when you have an upset stomach, you feel a bit flat. Or when you are stressed, you suddenly have to rush to the toilet.

“That’s because the vagus nerve provides a bidirectional communication between the gut and the emotional and cognitive centres in our brain.”

Some neurotransmitters, like serotonin and other chemicals that help produce good feelings and play a role in stress and mood, are produced by the gut.

And we get the ingredients to make those chemicals from food.

For example, tryptophan is one of the ingredients we get from food that helps us to make that happy hormone serotonin, she said.

Tryptophan, which is an essential amino acid, is found in foods like tofu, cottage cheese, eggs, chicken, salmon, meat, almonds and chickpeas.

Which food is ‘bad’?

Dr Rocks avoids labels like “bad” or “good” when it comes to food, but said some things are better for our mental health.

“Any way of eating that is based around higher consumption of whole foods – such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains – is much better for our mental health than diets where we consume a lot of ‘ultra-processed’ foods,” she said.

Whole foods come with plenty of fibre, which feeds the good bacteria in our gut, while fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals and polyphenols.

She recommends avoiding highly processed foods like pastries or anything deep fried, which tend to lack fibre.

Ms Dynan said most people think when they eat ‘good food’ they feed ‘good bacteria’ and when they eat ‘bad food’ they feed bad bacteria.

But that’s not actually the case.

We have a whole range of different microbiomes all through our body, but the one we are most interested is in our digestive tract, she said.

“The majority of the bacteria that are beneficial for our health are actually located in that last mile: The large intestine.”

The vagus nerve communicates between the brain and gut. Photo: Getty

Foods that are high in sugar and salt stay in the small intestine and never make it to the large intestine.

“If we fill up on those, then we’re not eating all those other whole foods that can really support the healthy bacteria in the gut,” Ms Dynan said.

“You’re starving the good bacteria.”

Fighting inflammation

Whole foods also tend to be anti-inflammatory.

Dr Rocks said while some inflammation is normal, chronic inflammation has been linked to lower mental health states, such as depression.

Olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish) could also help our bodies to fight inflammation.

Subsidise it, please, say dietitians

Dr Rocks recently appeared as an expert representative at parliamentary hearings on suicide prevention and mental health in Australia.

“We were trying to convince the government on the clear and critical need to include Accredited Practising Dietitians into multidisciplinary mental health teams, to support prevention and treatment of a range of mental health disorders,” she said.

Dr Rocks said Medicare currently recognises APDs as “nutrition experts”,  eligible to provide services under the MBS item numbers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health; Eating Disorders and Chronic Disease Management.

But they are not recognised as mental health practitioners, which means mental health-related nutrition support, proven to be effective by the Food and Mood Centre’s research, is not yet subsidised by Medicare with an MBS item number.

Associate Professor O’Neil said the research proved it was a “no brainer” and that upskilling existing allied health professionals would also help.

“The evidence is very clear that this works and it works well when it is delivered by a specialist, like an accredited practising dietitian,” she said.

“One of the things that we see as a significant barrier to uptake and translation of these approaches into real-world practice is a lack of financial reimbursement for both the provider and the patient.”

How are APD mental health workers?

Research has established a clear link between what we eat and how we feel.

Dietitians Australia CEO Robert Hunt has asked the government to include APDs  as mental health workers.

“Research shows that with support from a dietitian, people diagnosed with clinical depression were able to significantly reduce their mental health symptoms by making changes to their diet,” Mr Hunt said.

Those changes are also likely to prevent or reduce the risk of heart disease and type two diabetes, as well as improving gut health, he said.

Forty six per cent of Australians will be affected by poor mental health in their lifetimes, while suicide is the leading cause of death for Aussies aged between 15 and 44, according to Lifeline.

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