Food for thought: mental health and nutrition briefing

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Scroll down to watch the briefing being launched at our Eating Well event

What we eat and drink affects how we feel, think and behave. With a recent study finding more than 1 in 6 people experience a mental health problem each week, the need for effective approaches to understanding and improving mental health has never been greater.

This briefing focuses on how nutrition can be effectively integrated into public health strategies to protect and improve mental health and emotional wellbeing. It discusses what we know about the relationship between nutrition and mental health, the risk and positive factors within our diets and proposes an agenda for action.

Policy recommendations

  1. Promote community level schemes to provide access to affordable nutritious food, particularly in communities at higher risk of developing mental health problems.
  2. Improve nutritional literacy (embedded as part of a national mental health literacy programme) by ensuring evidence based programmes/initiatives are publicly available.   There should be a particular focus on education in schools with practical food skills, including cooking and growing, reintroduced as a part of the national curriculum for all students.  
  3. Extend schemes such as Healthy Start  across the country to ensure all children, throughout their development, have access to appropriate levels of micronutrients.
  4. GPs should be encouraged and supported to test people for nutritional deficiencies if they suspect that their mental health problems could be linked to poor diet, and to prescribe supplements if there is a deficiency. 
  5. Introduce regulation to support the promotion of healthy food to children, and to protect them from the marketing of unhealthy foods.
  6. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) needs to ensure that agricultural policy reflects the evidence base on healthy and mentally healthy food production. Specifically, support should be increased for the growth and availability of affordable organic produce, fruit and vegetables, other micro-nutrient rich food and for alternative sources for omega-3 fats, given the global shortages of oily fish.  
  7. National NHS bodies need to ensure mental health multidisciplinary teams have routine access to dieticians to prevent people with mental health problems developing physical health conditions and to support them to manage the impact of medications on physical health.
  8. National Health Education and Public Health bodies need to include nutrition within professional training curricula for health, social care and educational professionals to help them, identify where poor nutrition may be a factor in mental ill health, and to help people understand how to improve their mental health through making dietary changes, providing guidance on eating well at low cost. 
  9. Prioritise and invest in a mental health and nutrition research agenda through public health research bodies and programmes, to improve the quality of and access to evidence on what works.

Watch our nutrition and mental health event