A licensed therapist can help support your mental health needs match with a mental health expert Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA Updated October 20, 2023 by BetterHelp Editorial Team


Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated October 20, 2023 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When you think about diet, you might associate it with physical health. Eating the right foods could help you build muscle or manage weight, for example. However, our food choices can also affect our mental health.
The therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLC) program is a three-part program aimed at improving heart health through diet, physical activity, and weight management. While the TLC diet was developed to lower cholesterol, it may also have benefits for other aspects of health, including mental health. In this article, we’ll explore what the TLC diet is and the range of possible health benefits it may offer.
What Is The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes Diet?
The therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLC) diet is a heart-healthy diet developed by the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. The main goal of the TLC program is to help lower high blood cholesterol and improve heart health through a combination of dietary and lifestyle changes. The diet focuses on reducing the intake of saturated fats, trans fats, and dietary cholesterol while increasing the intake of soluble fiber and plant sterols.
The TLC diet suggests consuming a variety of foods, including:
Lean meats, poultry, and fish
Low-fat dairy products
Fruits and vegetables
Whole grains
Beans and lentils
One key component of the diet is limiting total fat intake to 25% to 35% of total daily calories, with saturated fat making up no more than 7% of total calories. It’s also recommended that you keep trans fat intake to a minimum and avoid more than 200 mg of dietary cholesterol per day.
The diet suggests adding at least five to 10 grams of fiber to your daily intake, mainly from foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. Plant stanols and sterols, found in whole grains, nuts, legumes, and oils like olive and avocado oil, can also be included in the diet as they may help lower cholesterol levels.
TLC diet vs. other diets
Compared to many other diets, the TLC diet is less restrictive; it allows for a more balanced intake of various food groups. As a result, this diet may be easier to follow in the long run and help simplify meal planning. The focus of the TLC diet is not on weight loss or calorie counting, but rather on improving overall heart health through mindful dietary and lifestyle choices.
The TLC diet is also backed by scientific research and endorsed by the National Institutes of Health. Unlike other diets that may promise rapid weight loss or emphasize a single food group, the TLC diet may be a more comprehensive option for nutrition. You may also be able to adhere to the TLC diet long-term, which can lead to lasting improvements in heart health, mental health, and overall well-being.
That said, some critics have pointed out that some of the TLC diet’s recommendations are outdated, so it could be best to consult with your doctor for questions on health and nutrition.
TLC diet and mental health
The TLC program’s focus on dietary changes, increased physical activity, and weight management may not only improve heart health, but mental health as well. In a paper published in the American Psychological Association’s flagship journal American Psychologist, Dr. Roger Walsh concluded that certain lifestyle changes can be just as effective as medication or therapy for treating a variety of mental illnesses.
A central part of the TLC diet is increasing the consumption of nutrient-dense foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These foods contain essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that may support brain health and cognitive functioning.
For instance, a well-rounded diet rich in fruits and vegetables can provide sufficient amounts of nutrients like B vitamins, vitamin C, and magnesium. These nutrients have been shown to help support proper brain function and mental health. One study found that vitamin B and magnesium may help reduce stress in chronically stressed individuals.
Another aspect of the TLC diet is the inclusion of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids such as fish, for instance. Omega-3 fatty acids may be important for healthy brain function since they can play a key role in maintaining the structure and function of brain cells. There is some evidence suggesting that consuming omega-3 fatty acids through diet or supplementation may improve symptoms of depression and other mood disorders, though more research is needed.
Physical activity is another pillar of the TLC program. Regular exercise has well-documented effects on mental health, including improvements in mood, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and increased cognitive function. In addition, exercise may help promote relaxation, improve sleep quality, and increase self-esteem.
Tips and strategies for success
Following any diet can be difficult at times since it can require planning and paying attention to everything you’re eating. Consider some of the following tips and strategies to help you maintain healthy dietary habits:
Meal planning and preparation
One key approach that may help you stick with the TLC diet is meal planning and preparation. A well-thought-out meal plan can help you make healthier choices with less frustration. You can start by creating a weekly menu that includes foods low in saturated fat, trans fat, and dietary cholesterol. This may help set the foundation for health improvements with the TLC diet.
Here are some ways to make meal planning and preparing easier:
Prep ingredients in advance to minimize cooking time.
Eat plenty of high-fiber vegetables, which may be naturally low in fat and calories.
Choose lean protein sources such as skinless chicken or fish.
Experiment with different whole-grain options for added variety.
Healthy snacking
When following the TLC diet, you may want to choose healthy snacking options. These options can help you maintain steady energy levels throughout the day and prevent you from eating too much during meals.
Here are some tips for healthy snacking:
Plan snack options ahead of time.
Keep a variety of nutrient-rich snacks on hand, including fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, or seeds.
Choose portion-controlled snacks to avoid overeating.
Managing Eating Out
It can be challenging to make smart food choices when you eat out. Here are some ways to stick to the TLC diet at restaurants:
Look up the menu options before you go to find TLC-friendly dishes.
Don’t hesitate to ask the servers about the nutritional content of menu items or specific substitutions to better align with the TLC guidelines.
Watch portion sizes and avoid overeating by taking home leftovers or sharing a meal.
Opt for water, unsweetened tea, or other non-alcoholic beverages to avoid extra calories.
With these strategies, you might find it easier to stick to your TLC diet plan.
A licensed therapist can help support your mental health needs
Match With A Mental Health Expert
Before making any dietary changes, it can be important to get support from qualified healthcare providers.
First, you might want to consult with your doctor to see if the TLC diet may be right for you. They can check your overall health, cholesterol levels, and any existing health problems. They can also suggest changes to the program if needed and give advice on other ways to lower cholesterol or improve mental health.
Working with a registered dietitian may also be helpful for adhering to the TLC diet. Dietitians can help with meal planning, choosing various foods, and controlling portion sizes. Some ways a dietitian might help people on the TLC diet include:
Creating a custom meal plan that follows TLC diet rules and takes into account your tastes, preferences, and lifestyle
Teaching you about portion sizes for staying at a healthy weight and managing cholesterol levels
Providing tips for grocery shopping such as reading nutrition labels and selecting heart-healthy products
Getting the right support will depend on your preferences and what you want to accomplish. Using the TLC diet in addition to going to therapy may be beneficial for overall mental health.
Support through online therapy
In addition to following a healthy diet and incorporating positive lifestyle changes, you might consider therapy as an option for mental health support. You can connect with a therapist in person or online. For individuals who are trying to make significant changes in their lives—whether to daily habits, behaviors, lifestyle, or relationships—questions or concerns about implementing these changes may arise, and you may find it helpful to reach out for help in those precise moments. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you can use in-app messaging to reach out to your therapist at any time, and they will respond as soon as they can.
Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of online therapy for a range of mental health concerns, including depression. For instance, one such study conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness of online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as compared to in-person CBT, which is a widely used treatment for depression. The study found that online CBT was more effective than in-person CBT at reducing the severity of depression symptoms.
The therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLC) diet was designed to help improve heart health, but it may have benefits for mental health as well. Following the dietary and physical activity recommendations of the TLC program may also help to reduce stress and improve mood. Before making any dietary changes, it’s important to consult with your healthcare provider. For additional support with improving your mental health, you can connect with a licensed therapist online via BetterHelp.


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