What is Nutritional Psychology?

Dr. David Wiss

January 22, 2023


What is Nutritional Psychology? 

Nutritional psychology is the ultimate example of a multidisciplinary biopsychosocial field. Nutrition is one of those fields with significant crossover into all health-related disciplines: medicine, epidemiology, sociology, psychology, and so many more. The diet and mental health connection is being investigated by microbiologist, immunologists, psychiatrists, health psychologists, and more recently by registered dietitian nutritionists. 

Nutritional psychology represents the intersection of psychological, behavioral, gastrointestinal (gut health), neurological (brain health), and nutritional sciences. This field is closely related to nutritional psychiatry, which is more of a treatment-focused discipline emphasizing food and dietary supplements as alternative treatments for mental health disorders. 

Both fields have been growing in recent years, but it does appear that the popularity of these topics is higher in Australia, the UK, Canada, and certain parts of South America (compared to the US). Some might argue that the influence of the pharmaceutical industry in the US is one reason why the conversation around nutrition for mental health has not gone mainstream. 

Psychology is a discipline which explores the inner world of the individual, situated in the context of their family, community, and society as a whole. Nutrition examines how dietary patterns and nutrients impact our health over time, situated in the context of the lifespan. Nutritional psychology represents the convergence between these. 

It has been long understood that our food patterns impact our mood. This has never been a secret. But only recently has science begun to elucidate the mechanisms. Scientific research has uncovered bidirectional pathways between the gut and brain and have implicated the immune and enteric nervous system as being important for mental health. 

How Does Nutritional Psychology Differ From Nutritional Psychiatry?

Nutritional psychiatry is focused on the individual. It is largely dependent on lab testing to understand underlying biological antecedents and consequences of brain health and behavioral health disorders. As one might expect, this discipline is guided by psychiatrist and psychiatric nurse practitioners. 

Nutritional psychiatry combines conventional medicine approaches with nutraceutical approaches. For example, augmenting an SSRI anti-depressant medication with folate, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. A very hot topic is neuroinflammation, which describes how inflammatory processes that often start in the gut can cross the blood-brain-barrier. 

While nutritional psychology is also focused on the individual, psychological sciences extend into the larger context, with particular focus on how we think about health, food, and our bodies. Much of one’s nutritional psychology is influenced by family dynamics, culture, and perceived ideals about how one should eat and look. 

Understanding nutritional psychology requires an understanding of diet culture, and how health-related messages influence cognitive processes around food choices. Eating patterns are complex and it has become obvious that generic meal plans and broad recommendations such as eat more fruits and vegetables are not sufficient to produce sustainable behavior change. Nutritional science must go way beyond the nutrient content of foods. 

How Can Wise Mind Nutrition Help?

A primary target of the Wise Mind Nutrition program is to take a deep dive into cognitive processes around food and body. Many people need to be reoriented with a new framework that honors the gut-brain connection but is not rooted in diet culture. In order to reset thinking patterns about food and health, it is imperative to address nutritional deficiencies and find balance with food first. 

Without consistent and adequate nutrition signals, it is very difficult for the brain to develop new neural pathways. Our food group system is flexible for all types of eaters, and encourages food intake across all categories. Of course, everyone is different and we honor the need for nuance across the spectrum of eating approaches. We are here to help you build your own nutritional identity. 

The first step is getting into a more predictable feeding pattern (“when to eat”). The next step is focusing on what to eat, to ensure that all macro and micronutrients are being met through food. It is also important to make sure the brain receives a wide range of sensory input from food: hot, cold, smooth, crunchy, salty, sweet, savory, etc. 

Then, we move on to how we connect with food, strengthening the gut-brain communication network. The body is then positioned to trust its internal cues of hunger and fullness and guide you toward eating the right amount of food. Finally, the program encourages you to think about food in a new way, to cultivate food-positive celebratory energy, as you develop guiding principles that you can take with you anywhere you go. 

In summary, the Wise Mind Nutrition program is rooted in the principles of nutritional psychology. If you are looking for more specifics about biomarkers and are ready for a deeper dive into nutritional psychiatry, I (Dr. Wiss) can help you. The app-based program can be done alongside working with me or another one of the practitioners on our team. Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions you may have.