Mental Health and Nutrition: How to Recognize the Impact on Eating Habits

by | Jan 2, 2024

Explore the intricate connection between mental health and eating habits. Discover how it affects your relationship with food and body image. Unveil the link to unhealthy eating patterns.

As a Registered Dietitian, I’ve witnessed firsthand the profound impact that our mental health has on our eating habits and vice versa. It’s a connection that can’t be ignored, yet many healthcare providers may miss the subtle signs that patients hide or deny. The approach dietitians take with their patients and clients—called Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT)—may help catch signs that can be addressed in session through deeper questioning or help to refer a patient to a therapist when the issue may be outside of our scope of practice.

Research indicates that individuals commonly adopt overly restrictive eating habits in the new year after indulging during the holiday season[1]. This is often associated with the desire to compensate for how we mentally and physically feel after changing our overall eating behaviors and believing that we’ve somehow contributed to unhealthy habits that may last long-term.

Understanding the connection

The foods we choose to consume play a significant role in our emotional well-being, and conversely, our mental state influences what and how we eat, as does past trauma, chronic dieting, and negative language around self-image[2]. Hopefully, the insights and practical strategies below will help you foster a healthier relationship between your mind and your plate, especially as we enter into a new year when people tend to be overly ambitious in fine-tuning their health and wellness habits.

Our mental health and emotional well-being are closely linked to our physical health and nutrition[3]. Stress, anxiety, and depression can all influence our food choices, often leading to emotional eating, which involves eating in response to emotions, a common coping mechanism. On the other hand, intuitive eating (explained below) encourages us to listen to our body cues and maintain a balanced relationship with food. Recognizing the difference between the two can be helpful in improving our mental health and eating habits, but it’s not always that easy as so many factors are involved in what and how and why we eat.

Plate of donuts and chocolate with a sticky note that reads "eat"
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Finding balance

A well-balanced diet rich in essential nutrients can significantly impact your mood and mental health. Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, nuts, and seeds) and cell-supportive antioxidants from our colorful produce play a crucial role in supporting brain health, helping to manage stress and maintain emotional well-being. Including these types of foods in as many meals as possible, provided you have the means and access to do so, may positively impact your mood and mental well-being[4].

Intuitive eating (coined by fellow Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch) is a holistic approach to food that encourages mindfulness, self-compassion, and enjoying a variety of foods without judgment[5]. The formal approach includes ten principles that encourage us to reject restrictive diets and instead focus on internal hunger cues as well as accepting our unique body shapes and sizes. This may be easier said than done, especially for anyone in the beginning stages of recovering from an eating disorder, managing a chronic condition like Type 1 diabetes, or unable to recognize hunger and fullness cues.

Identifying triggers

If I had to choose one factor that seems to come up time and time again in my patient sessions, it’s stress. Stress seems to be a significant driver of unhealthy eating and other wellness habits, whether it’s stress over body image, relationships, job pressures, or our own self-imposed deadlines.

Common signs of disordered eating behaviors, such as restrictive eating, binge eating, or a preoccupation with food and body image can often be masked by those who suffer from these conditions or dismissed by healthcare professionals who might not be properly trained on how to recognize certain behaviors[6]. In these cases, it’s crucial to seek appropriate help when needed, such as speaking to a licensed therapist or calling a hotline for support as it’s important to note that eating disorders fall under a mental health diagnosis.

Binge eating, for example, is characterized by a sense of loss of control during eating episodes. Restrictive eating may include anything from extreme pickiness to a lack of interest in overall food consumption to very low calories in daily meals[7]. An obsessive focus (known as orthorexia) on eating perceived healthy or “clean” foods can lead to the detriment of one’s overall well-being where an individual engages in rigid dietary and other health practices, like excessive exercise[8]. Any or all of these conditions may result in social withdrawal, not to mention potential adverse effects on bodily functions like thyroid health, menstruation, and bone density.

Creating structure

While I will always encourage seeking medical guidance and mental health support, the following may be useful in fostering more mindful eating habits.

Practical meal planning, savoring your food, and eating without distractions may help you create and maintain a healthier relationship with your meals.

Table with glass containers of meal prepped food: shrimp over rice, vegetables
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Not skipping meals and focusing on nourishing your body can aid in supporting your energy levels and help you navigate levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. Learning to manage your emotions can lead to healthier choices.

Prioritizing your mental health and creating a mindful approach to eating may help you explore significant associations you may have with your food choices. If you notice signs of disordered eating behaviors or experience mental health issues that affect your eating habits, don’t hesitate to seek professional help[9]. A registered dietitian or mental health professional can provide valuable support and guidance.

Not sure where to start? Book a call with me and let’s figure out a plan of action together!


  1. Winter Holidays and Their Impact on Eating Behavior—A Systematic Review –
  2. Emotion Matters: How Does Social Media Influence Body Image –
  3. How Your Food Choices Affect Your Mental Well-Being –
  4. Evidence of the Importance of Dietary Habits Regarding Depressive Symptoms and Depression –
  5. The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating and How to Apply Them-
  6. Pilot test of clinician sensitivity training on eating disorders –
  7. Eating Disorders: About More Than Food –
  8. Orthorexia Nervosa: An Obsession With Healthy Eating –
  9. What families need to know about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders –


I’m Dina R. D’Alessandro, MS, RDN, CDN. I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in New York City, and I provide nutrition counseling to women.

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