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The Impact of Nutrition on Physical and Mental Health

Note: This blog was written by Juliette Heim, Autism Resource Specialist, and Kristy Myers, Health Consultant at the Autism Society of North Carolina. Juliette Heim’s reflections on her experience as a parent to a son with autism are in italics.


Health is broadly defined as “a state of physical, mental and social well-being, in addition to freedom from disease and/or illness” (source).  It includes daily movement, adequate sleep, healthy eating patterns and social connections that result in improved quality of life and reduced risk for chronic diseases.

As a parent of a soon to be 22-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum, I have learned some very important lessons over the years, as to the importance of physical and mental health in relation to nutrition. At the time when Logan was four years old, we discovered that he had some nutritional deficiencies, as well as intolerances related to his digestion and his overall gut health. After doing my own research and consulting with my son’s pediatrician, we placed him on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet. For Logan, this has made a world of difference for him.

The relationship between nutrition and whole-person health is essential when considering each person’s needs and supports. More research is finding that a nutritious diet isn’t just good for the body; it’s great for the brain, too. There is a strong link between diet quality and common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, attention-deficit disorder (ADD), and cognition in both children and adults. Recent studies have shown the risk of depression increases about 80% when you compare teens with the lowest-quality diet to those who eat a higher-quality, whole-foods diet. Let’s review some of the specific nutrients that support mental health:

    • B vitamins (Folate – Vitamin B9, and Cobalamin – Vitamin B12) – low levels have been associated with increased brain inflammation and higher rates of depression and dementia. Food sources high in Vitamin B9 include spinach, fortified breakfast cereals, asparagus, brussel sprouts, avocado, kidney beans, oranges, and bananas. Food sources high in Vitamin B12 include foods found in animal products (i.e., fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk/dairy products, fortified breakfast cereals).
    • Iron plays a key role in many of the brain’s processes that help regulate mood. Too little iron in the blood (iron-deficiency anemia) has been linked directly to depression. The top ten iron rich foods include liver, oysters, spinach, lentils, fortified cereals, red meat, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds, molasses, and tofu.
    • Omega-3s – these healthy “good” fatty acids improve thinking and memory and mood. Supplements include fish oil, cod liver oil, and vegetarian algal oil. Foods rich in Omega-3s include flaxseed, canola oil, chia seeds, salmon, shellfish, walnuts, and mayonnaise.
    • Zinc and Magnesium – these nutrients help control the body’s response to stress and reduce the risk of depression. Foods rich in Zinc and Magnesium include shellfish, nuts and seeds, legumes, grains, and yogurt.
    • Probiotic and Fermented foods provide good gut bacteria and help decrease inflammation, reduce anxiety, stress, the risk of depression, and enhanced cognition.  The top recommended fermented foods include kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, raw cheese, yogurt, apple cider vinegar, sourdough bread, raw cheese, and cottage cheese.
    • Antioxidants increase blood flow to the brain, increasing cognition and reducing the risk of depression. Food resources include dark chocolate, blueberries, goji berries, strawberries, pecans, kale, beets, raspberries, beans, and artichokes.


Whether one is on a specific diet, such as gluten-free, dairy-free, celiac, cardiac, diabetic, or on a standard diet, it is important to try to avoid processed foods containing additives such as salt, sweeteners, fat, artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. It is equally important to be sure your child is receiving the nutrition that they need in order to ensure proper brain development and optimal function.  It is good practice for parents and caregivers to be sure they are paying close attention and understand their child’s growth spurts, which are a natural part of their development. They may have an increased appetite during these times as well. Fruits and vegetables are great daily staples that I incorporate into my son’s diet, as these are filled with the right nutrients that he needs.

For Logan, physical and mental health is crucial, as it helps to maintain his overall wellbeing. Ever since he was little, we learned that he needed movement, which helped him to stay focused and calm, and overall healthy. Logan enjoyed jumping, as it appeared to help him with his sensory processing. We had a mini trampoline inside the house, and a large trampoline outside, so he would be able to jump, as we deemed necessary, which was quite often and daily. When he was older, he enjoyed a gymnastics program, and then learned to play tennis as well.  Yoga, and Zumba have also been a big hit over the years. Logan still needs an hour a day of some form of exercise. He spends a great deal of time walking outside, or on the treadmill during the colder months.



Related Articles by the Autism Society of North Carolina

“Are Chicken Nuggets a Vegetable?” and Other Mealtime Musings: Selective Eating in Autism

“Food is Yummy! Get in My Tummy!” Managing Food-Seeking Behaviors

Integrated Care: Why It Matters and How to Achieve It

External Articles

Processed Foods and Health – Harvard, The Nutrition Source

Nutrition and Mental Health – Dairy Council of California

B Vitamins and Mental Health – Behavioral Nutrition



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