The History of Nutritional Psychology: A New Field of Study to Support a New Model of Mental Healthcare
Ephimia Morphew-Lu, CNP Founder and Developer
“When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary ideas.” — Frans Johansson
An Interesting Beginning
During the last 15 years, there has been quiet but steady growth of a new field of study called ‘Nutritional Psychology’. I’d like to share my experience in how Nutritional Psychology came to be, and my hopes for its future role within mental healthcare.
Like many individuals, my personal struggles have contributed to my life’s pursuits, and perhaps unlike some, I have dealt with serious and chronic health issues from a very early age. Beginning in childhood, I experienced severe allergies and asthma, and as a young adult, received additional diagnoses including mixed connective tissue disease and fibromyalgia. These conditions were debilitating, and at times disabling, and created limitations affecting virtually every area of my life. As a result, I developed an intimate understanding of what it took to live with multiple chronic health disorders, and navigate the healthcare system in pursuit of a cure for chronic pain and suffering.
My formal academic training and professional experience lay within a specialized area of psychology referred to as aerospace psychology. As an aerospace psychologist, I was trained to understand and support the cognitive, behavioral, psychological, psychosocial and perceptual aspects of human behavior and performance in complex, uncertain, high-intensity, and stressful environments (e.g. battlefield, cockpit, spaceship, underwater).
Occurring in parallel with my career in aerospace psychology was the necessity of perpetual engagement within the healthcare system in order to manage my conditions. By my 30’s, I was an outpatient chronic pain patient within a major hospital, taking a multitude of medications – including one or two that were positively life-changing, and many others that were life-harming. It became clear that there were significant limitations within the traditional healthcare system when handling chronic and diffuse disorders. After retiring as an aerospace psychologist, I returned to the university setting with an intense desire to seek relief and develop my knowledge of how to create positive change and reduce my suffering.
(2005) Transitioning from Psychology to Nutrition
For the next several years, I completed my pre-nursing prerequisites including biology, physiology, anatomy, and nutrition. It was at this time that my studies steered towards the field of holistic nutrition. I felt this was the fastest and most effectual way to improve my internal environment.
After completing my certificate in holistic education, I spent the next several years working privately with individuals as a nutrition educator in my consulting business NeuroNutritional Consulting. As I listened to client’s experiences, I sought to more deeply understand the ways in which their diet was affecting their psychological, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive functioning. I was very comfortable blending my dual background in psychology and nutrition with my own internalized experience to build an evidence-based understanding of the ways in which diet could be affecting one’s mood, behavior, and mental health.
As I looked for research to develop my understanding, I was surprised to find a complete lack of published material on the relationship between dietary intake and psychological, cognitive, and mood-based functioning. I felt strongly that the connection between diet and mental health was being fundamentally missed in related fields of study, and set out to consolidate the science illuminating the diet-mental health relationship. I began writing about the link between the fields of nutrition and psychology, a link that I referred to as “Nutritional Psychology”.
I continued to read, write, search, and eventually used my knowledge to develop conceptualization and tools to educate my clients in understanding the possible relationship between their dietary intake and their internal experience, including their psychological, behavioral, and cognitive functioning. I was no longer solving problems for individuals operating in external extreme environments, rather, I was educating individuals about the role that their dietary intake patterns could be playing on their internal environment.
(2008) Development of the First University-Level Courses in Nutritional Psychology
As I continued to further develop my thoughts and concepts in Nutritional Psychology and share them with clients and colleagues, one colleague suggested that this work belonged within a university environment. In 2008 I proposed, developed, and taught the first university-based continuing education course in Nutritional Psychology at JFK University. This course was accredited by several respected accrediting bodies and was designed to provide a variety of mental health and allied health professionals with an introduction to Nutritional psychology, and to further their understanding of how dietary and nutrient intake could be affecting their clients’ mood, behavior, and mental health. The course was very well-received, and I was invited to develop a second.
During this time, many mental health professionals expressed that they felt diet may be playing an unrecognized role in their clients’ mood, behavior, and mental functioning, and that Nutritional Psychology fit well with their desire to understand and support this contributing factor to their clients’ well-being.
(2012) Development of the First University-Level CE Certificate Program in Nutritional Psychology
As the JFKU courses grew in popularity, I was invited in 2011 to develop a multi-course certificate program in Nutritional Psychology to train mental health professionals to ethically and within scope of practice provide Nutritional Psychology education to their clients. It was at this time that I invited Dr. Amanda Hull to co-develop the certificate program.
The accredited, 7-course certificate provided mental and allied health professionals with a deeper understanding of the ways in which an individual’s dietary and nutrient intake pattern could be affecting their clients’ mood, behavior, and mental health. The program included a full course outlining scope of practice guidelines for safely and ethically incorporating NP Education into practice. Several contributors assisted with the Certificate courses, including Lou Lasprugato MFT, Dr. Caryn Seebach, and Dr. Alyssa Adams and Jill Sheppard Davenport, MS, CNS. We are grateful for the role these individuals played in helping to develop the first-generation curriculum in Nutritional Psychology.
(2015) The Founding of CNP
In 2015, Dr. Amanda Hull and I founded The Center for Nutritional Psychology (CNP), an online organization supporting the development of the field of Nutritional Psychology. The organization was dedicated to supporting the development of Nutritional Psychology. CNP has now developed into an online presence where professionals and interested individuals come to to learn about Nutritional Psychology from an evidence-based point of view, and to deepen their understanding of the Diet-Mental Health Relationship. Our organization consolidates research from around the world informing this relationship, advocates for NP’s inclusion within a new model of mental healthcare, and provides a forum for discussion and development of the field. In 2019, Dr. Hull retired from her role as CNP’s initial founding and development to support her transition from the Washington DC VA to the Whole Health Institute where she is currently a Senior Director.
Continuing forward with the development of the website and organization involved building the Research Libraries, developing the next generation of NP curriculum, the CNP Contributor team, and adding a component of advocacy to CNP’s mission which provided visualization in a new model of mental healthcare (one that includes Nutritional Psychology).
In March of 2020, I made the decision to electively retire the JFK Nutritional Psychology Certificate because of the realization that advances in areas of research supporting the conceptualization of the field had superseded the program’s ability to adapt . The CNP team is currently preparing next-generation curriculum that incorporates the vastly increased amount of research supporting conceptualization in the field, and provides new conceptualization, methodology, and tools within the curriculum. The CNP next-generation courses in NP will begin their rollout in early to mid 2021.
(2020) Consolidating Research to Support the Development of the Field of Nutritional Psychology
CNP is concerned with providing mental and allied health professionals with access to research, methodology, and curriculum informing the field of Nutritional Psychology, and formalizing education and training programs to support the inclusion of NP into future mental healthcare programs to better support the mood, behavior, and mental health of individuals within this system.
To support the development of the field of Nutritional Psychology, CNP has developed the CNP Research Libraries to house research from around the world informing our understanding of the Diet-Mental Health Relationship. The four research libraries today house over 1,000 research study links informing the field of NP, and is increasing daily. The study links contained in this library inform every area considered within the umbrella of NP.
(2021) CNP on the path to 501(c)3 Non-Profit Status
CNP is currently working to establish 501(c)3 tax-exempt status and is on track to becoming a non-profit organization by early 2021. This status will allow more constructive collaboration with universities, other non-profit institutions, and support the development of grant writing, program development, and areas of research.
(2023) Roll-out of Next-Generation Professional Training in Nutritional Psychology
The year of 2023 is our organizational target date for the next-generation accredited certificate in Nutritional Psychology to be available. The certificate will likely be comprised of 5-7 courses with the purpose of providing learners with a strong introduction to the field of Nutritional Psychology, including providing them with an understanding of how to incorporate the educational tools within their scope of practice.
(2024) Development of Undergraduate and Graduate Curriculum in NP
CNP is working to develop NP curriculum for undergraduate and graduate students in the university setting by 2024. We will be developing connections with universities and organizations to incorporate NP education into undergraduate and graduate-level curriculum in four-year universities.
This curriculum will provide university students with education in NP that prepares them to conduct enter graduate-level university programs, and/or assist their development as professional counselors and clinicians.
Development of a Licensing Body to Support the title of “Nutritional Psychologist”
(2027) The year of 2027 will see the formation of a licensing committee that develops standards and scope of practice guidelines and requirements for holding the formal title of “Nutritional Psychologist”.
By the year 2030, the following criteria will have been met for the field of Nutritional Psychology:
- All research informing the field has been consolidated through its home organization, The Center for Nutritional Psychology;
- Formalized university-level undergraduate and graduate curriculum has been implemented in universities across the U.S. (and in collaborating nations);
- A formal graduate degree in Nutritional Psychology exists and is formally training mental and allied health professionals to support their clients in making positive improvements in their diet-mental health relationship.
- The structure needed to obtain the formal title of “Nutritional Psychologist” is existing, including graduate-level education, applied training, and standards for licensure.
- Practicing Nutritional Psychologists exist in the world, and those with formal education in mental health and related fields have received basic education on how diet and nutrients affect all aspects of mood, behavior, and mental health.
- A Nutritional component to mental healthcare is here and people within the mental healthcare system receive education in how their dietary intake patterns play a role in their mood, behavior and mental health.
Towards a New Future and a New Model in Mental Healthcare
The mental health field has not yet formally or broadly recognized the role that diet and nutrients play in every aspect of mood, behavior, and mental health. The Center for Nutritional Psychology is working to change this. We are defining the term “Nutritional Psychology”, consolidating research supporting this definition, building methodology, and developing formalized curriculum for placement within the university environment. Our goal is to support the development of a new way forward in mental healthcare — one which provides new tools for mental and allied health professionals to better support mood, behavior, and mental health.
You can support this mission by:
(1) Visiting us at https://www.nutritional-psychology.org
(2) Completing an advocacy form on our website
(3) Using your skill set to become a CNP Contributor
(4) Supporting CNP with funding in the future, as CNP will soon become a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation