New Tool to Guide Nutrition Counseling in Schizophrenia Patients

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

November 23, 2021

A new tool designed by psychiatrists to help guide nutritional counseling in patients with schizophrenia spectrum disorders (SSD) has been released.

The worksheet and clinician guide was developed using results from a recent scoping review on the relationship between diet and mental health in patients with SSD, and a feedback process involving a focus group with psychiatrists and individuals who had lived experience with psychosis.

"Mental health clinicians already have the training to help our patients make behavioral changes," lead author Laura LaChance, MD, lecturer, department of psychiatry, and a psychiatrist at St. Mary's Hospital Centre, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, told Medscape Medical News.

"We work every day with patients to help them to reduce their substance use, improve their sleep, take medications, etc, and nutrition should be added to the radar [since] eating well for mental health is part of self-care and can be included in mental health treatment plans," she said.

The paper was published online November 10 in BMC Psychiatry.

Nutrition Frequently Ignored

LaChance noted that "nutrition is largely absent from mental health training programs and often ignored in clinical practice."

The investigators "wanted to create a tool to help incorporate basic nutritional counseling into the care of individuals with severe mental illness." They wanted the tool "to be simple enough to understand for patients and simple enough to use for mental health care professionals who don't have any official nutrition training."

The team developed a worksheet that includes dietary recommendations, the majority of which are supported by the scoping review and consistent with Canada's Food Guide. The review "identified all of the published literature related to the relationship between diet and psychiatric symptoms of SSD," synthesizing the results of 822 prior articles.

It promotes the addition of nutritious food rather than restricting calories or individual foods and does not contradict generally accepted recommendations for weight management. It is suitable for all patients including those with low or normal body mass index and provides psychoeducation about the importance of quality nutrition as a determinant of mental health.

Positive Tone

The worksheet was informed by Social Cognitive Theory, which "highlights the important role of goal setting and behavior contracting, reinforcement, self-control, social norms, attitudes, and self-efficacy."

It provides "basic education about important nutrition principles" as well as "very simple recommendations to increase knowledge about healthy eating" and "actional tips for individuals to incorporate." The researchers used a "positive" tone and included motivational interviewing questions.

"Delivery of the intervention by the patient's mental health care provider is by design, in an attempt to address the widely held misbelief that nutrition intervention is of limited importance to mental health care and begin to change norms," LaChance said.

The worksheet addresses monetary barriers to healthy eating; offers practical tips to "increase perceived control and self-efficacy"; is written in simple, accessible, nontechnical language; and includes foods from a range of cultural backgrounds.

To ensure that the worksheet and clinical guide met the needs of the target population, the researchers conducted a focus group with five psychiatrists and individual phone interviews with people who live with psychosis (n = 6).

Participants with psychosis were evenly divided between male and female and six age groups were represented: < 20 years; 21 - 30 years; 31 - 40 years; 41 - 50 years; 51 - 50 years; and > 60 years. Of these participants, half scored in the "limited literacy" range, based on a nutritional literacy assessment tool (the Newest Vital Sign [NVS]).

A revised version of the worksheet, taking participants' feedback into account, was mailed to all participants, who then provided further feedback on the revised version.

"Unspoken Area"

The clinician guide contains not only an overview and a suggested agenda to steer discussion, but it also contains a sample visual representation of the recommended relative proportions of different food categories in an ideal meal as well as sample meals, a budgeting discussion, and a list of goals.

A closing statement encourages the clinician to "keep the messaging positive, celebrate small victories, and provide encouragement."

Specific dietary recommendations include choosing complex carbohydrates and healthy fats, reducing highly processed foods and sugar, adding vegetables and fruits to meals and snacks, and eating protein-rich foods throughout the day.

A "noteworthy theme" that emerged in discussions with psychiatrists as well as participants with SSD was "the lack of nutrition training in medical education and psychiatric residency and the general absence of nutritional counseling in this field of medicine."

One participant described nutrition as "definitely an unspoken area" in schizophrenia — especially in institutional settings, where "you are overloaded with sugars, not healthy grain, not complex grain. You get white bread sandwiches, shitty juice."

Powerful Tool

Commenting on the paper for Medscape Medical News, Uma Naidoo, MD, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and a nutrition educator at Harvard Medical School, said she appreciates that this paper "is seeking methods to expand treatment options for those with SSD and improve provider understanding/knowledge of therapeutic foods."

She called the pilot evaluation "notably small," but added that it "provides results to suggest that scaling this worksheet/guide may hold promise to better provide nutritional counseling to those with psychiatric illness."

Naidoo, also a chef and the author of This Is Your Brain on Food, who was not involved in the study said, "I've seen the power of food as medicine in my own hospital practice and do believe that food is one of the most powerful tools we have in supporting mental fitness and emotional well-being."

The project was funded by the Canadian CAM Research Fund. LaChance and Naidoo have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

BMC Psychiatry. 2021;21:556. Full text

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