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National Nutrition Month: A Brief Look at Food’s Role in Behavioral Health

For the entire month of March, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is inviting the nation to be mindful of nutrition. Their goal during National Nutrition Month is to emphasize the importance of developing good dietary and physical activity habits as well as making educated choices around food.

At one time, it was thought that behavioral and physical health were unrelated, but today we know differently. The fact is that the two are interdependent, and their relationship must be considered to evaluate the health of a person holistically. One angle of looking at the relationship between physical health, specifically nutrition, and behavioral health is to consider how the chemical composition of food affects brain function, as per the field of nutritional psychiatry. For instance, foods that are of quality nutrition help the brain function best by keeping away inflammation and stress from the oxidative waste that is left after the body uses oxygen. More recent findings suggest specifically diets of low quality nutrition can lead to detrimental effects on the mental health of both adults and children (Sarris, et al., 2015).

One can see the interdependent relationship of physical and behavioral health at work in the instance of obesity. Research findings support that fat, through its secretion of hormones and substances that facilitate inflammation, can affect the mental health of a person at a chemical level. Likewise, inflammation-causing substances begin to flow at a higher volume as a result of the immune system’s state of chronic stress from obesity. Some studies illustrate that the increase of select inflammatory substances in the body can chemically contribute to depression. In the same way that obesity can contribute to depression, depression can contribute to obesity, as a disinterest or inability to attend to physical health is how depression can manifest symptomatically for many people (Davis). 

A growing body of research in the field of nutritional psychiatry looks closely at the relationship between nutrition and the brain. It also supports the use of nutraceutical (nutrient-based) supplements, including choline, zinc, iron, Vitamin D, amino acids, omega-3s, magnesium, and B vitamins, all of which are linked to brain health, to assist with the treatment of some mental disorders (Sarris, et al., 2015).

Equally as important as the “what” of the fuel in thinking about the whole health of a person is the “how” of the fuel. For instance, how we relate to food and food rituals in the social, emotional, and cultural contexts of our lives say a great deal about how we relate to and order the world. Especially with the celebration of National Eating Disorders Awareness and Screening only a week ago, it is appropriate to acknowledge the range of eating and feeding disorders resulting from a combination of biopsychosocial factors in the discussion of food’s place in behavioral health.

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Davis, Jessica A. Body composition and mental health: healthy body, healthy mind. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Sarris, J., Logan, A. C., Akbaraly, T. N., Amminger, G. P., Balanzá-Martínez, V., Freeman, M. P., … Jacka, F. N. (2015). International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research consensus position statement: nutritional medicine in modern psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 14(3), 370–371. doi: 10.1002/wps.20223