An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

How a Nutrition Program Supports Mental Health

How a Nutrition Program Supports Mental Health

One of the most important ways for young adults to support their mental health is through the power of nutrition. Research shows that a well-balanced nutrition program can actually prevent or reverse depression and anxiety symptoms. Eating for mental health—what we call “the meal as medicine” at Newport Institute—is at the top of the list of healthy lifestyle choices that can truly transform a young adult’s life.

When to Seek Help

Emerging adulthood is often a tumultuous time, as young people face the challenges of establishing a meaningful career, relationships, and community. Moreover, world events and social strife can exacerbate these challenges, particularly for millennials and Gen Z as they take their place as the next generation of leaders. This can be a heavy burden for young people.

If you or a loved one is experiencing signs of depression, anxiety, or co-occurring substance use disorder or eating disorders, the next step is to consider treatment options, whether residential, outpatient, or telehealth. When mental health issues arise, it’s essential to pursue treatment as early as possible in order to ensure success and long-lasting recovery.

As part of a comprehensive treatment plan, a nutrition program offers a natural and sustainable approach to both physical and emotional well-being. Nutrition and food intake directly affect brain function and the hormones that control mood. 

What is Nutrition?

Nutrition refers to the vitamins, minerals, and other substances, such as omega 3 fatty acids and folic acid, that occur naturally in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and healthy protein. Multiple studies, including the groundbreaking SMILES Trial, have demonstrated the amazing impact of food on our mood—linking specific nutrients to measurable positive outcomes in terms of mental health.

For example, vitamin D affects serotonin levels, and serotonin plays a primary role in mood regulation. Therefore, foods that contain vitamin D, as well as other important nutrients linked to mental health, are among the top 10 foods you should eat every day. A 2019 study found that the incidence of depression in individuals with vitamin D deficiency was four times higher than in those who were not vitamin D deficient (20.4 percent vs. 4.2 percent). That’s just one of the many links between food and mental health uncovered by recent research.

Know the Facts

95% of serotonin, one of the key hormones involved in mood and emotion regulation, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract.

What to Expect

A nutritional program is one aspect of a whole-person treatment approach that addresses mental health on every level—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational. We typically think of proper nutrition as a way to support physical health, but research in this area makes it abundantly clear that healthy eating habits directly affect our state of mind as well.

Furthermore, a nutritional program isn’t just about what we eat, it’s also about what we don’t eat—such as sugar. A growing body of evidence shows that consumption of sugar and refined sweeteners parallels the addictive processes in the brain that result from substance abuse. Like drugs (though to a lesser extent), sugar and processed junk food flood the brain with the feel-good chemical dopamine. Consequently, those excess levels of dopamine significantly change the natural functions of the brain over time.

A nutrition program for mental health lays out a guide not only for proper nutrition, but also for healthy eating habits, such as eating slowly and mindfully, without the distraction of phones or other devices. Taking slow, deep breaths helps to calm the nervous system, which improves digestive function—allowing the body to more effectively integrate beneficial nutrients.

What to Expect in Newport’s Nutrition Program

Newport Institute’s nutrition program is a foundational element of our clinical model. Our approach to care is both integrated and integrative. “Integrated” refers to blending medical and behavioral expertise, while “integrative” means that we offer both clinical and experiential treatment modalities. Hence, each young adult’s treatment plan details healthy eating habits for their specific physical and mental health needs.

For young adults with eating disorders, the nutrition program is carefully planned and managed each step of the way. However, we recognize the importance of the meal as medicine for all mental health conditions.

Our emotional well-being relies in part on information that travels from the ‘second brain’ or ‘belly brain’ in the gut to the brain above. Therefore, people with healthy and diverse gut microbes are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. In fact, studies show that having a healthy gut can reduce social anxiety and lower our reactions to stress.

Jeffrey Zurofsky
Culinary Program Director at Newport Institute
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Care at Newport Institute

At Newport Institute, the nutrition program is woven into the fabric of each day. Our culinary staff serves freshly prepared food made from scratch with seasonal, local, and organic ingredients. Often, the just-picked produce served at meals has been grown on-site in our Horticulture Program garden. Tending plants allows young adults to get out in nature, get their hands in the dirt, and experience the satisfaction of seeing seeds grow and flourish.

Moreover, our nutritionists and culinary staff create healthy meal plans and educate residents about proper nutrition. In addition, residents and staff eat together at meals as a way to build community, and so staff can model healthy eating habits. In our Culinary Program, young adults access the fulfillment and creativity that come with creating and sharing delicious meals.

Ultimately, understanding and practicing the elements of proper nutrition will benefit young adults for the rest of their lives—boosting their physical health, energy levels, and overall well-being.

Newport Institute

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