New research shows that the DASH diet may have another major benefit: improved mental health.
In a six-year observational study, researchers closely tracked the eating habits of nearly 1,000 older adults. The study showed that people with diets closely resembling the DASH diet had an 11% lower risk for depression. Meanwhile, participants who habitually ate the saturated fats, red meats and fewer fruits and veggies associated with the Western diet had a greater likelihood of developing depression.
For Catherine Nesov, a licensed mental health counselor at Florida Hospital, the study comes as no big surprise.
“If we’re engaging in a healthy diet, it will have a direct correlation on our mood,” Nesov says. That’s because the food we eat plays a huge role in how well our brain works.
“The brain functions on the fuel we give it,” says Nesov. “If we’re eating well, it’s like we’re giving the brain premium gasoline. The more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants we give the brain, the better it will perform.”
If fruits, veggies and whole grains are premium fuel, then take-out foods and frozen meals are examples of the low-quality stuff. While quick and convenient, those salty, sugary, pre-packaged items can take a huge toll on our cardiovascular and mental health.
“Overconsumption of salt and sugar results in a chemical imbalance of the brain and directly impacts the levels of dopamine the brain is secreting, which correlates with depression and anxiety,” Nesov explains.
There’s a laundry list of other ways salt and sugar can make your brain work at sub-optimal levels. Sugar is linked to cellular inflammation, which is another likely culprit of depression and anxiety. And while some salt is good for the body, consuming too much of it can disrupt the neurological system, weaken immune health and increase fatigue – another risk factor for depression.
Beyond the nutritional benefits of DASH, Nesov says embracing healthier eating nourishes the soul.
“This diet is primarily about the body, but it’s also about the spirit,” Nesov says. “When you start taking care of your body and making healthy choices with food, you’re expressing the greatest form of self-love. One of the keys of depression is learning how to love yourself more.”
How Older Adults Can Benefit from DASH
The DASH diet may be a special blessing for older patients, who commonly develop depression as a side effect of social isolation, memory loss, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke and other ailments. In addition to more vitamins and nutrients, older adults will get something else: a new challenge.
“Eating healthy gets them moving because they need to prepare the food rather than just reach for a frozen meal,” Nesov says. “It also utilizes the brain a bit more because they’re looking up creative recipes.”
The DASH diet may also help older patients avoid adding another medication to the pillbox.
“The older you get, the more medications you’re likely to be on,” says Nesov. “Rather than just putting them on an antidepressant, these are simple strategies that can improve their overall well-being”
How the DASH Diet Works
DASH isn’t so much a “diet” as it is a lifelong approach to healthy, well-balanced eating. By reducing sodium and incorporating foods rich in fiber, potassium, calcium and magnesium, a person may be able to reduce his or her systolic blood pressure by eight to 14 points over time.
Here’s a breakdown of a typical day on DASH:
- Grains: 6-8 servings
Including brown rice and other whole grains, whole-wheat bread, cereal and pasta.
- Vegetables: 4-5 servings
A variety of dark leafy greens and nutrient-packed veggies like carrots, tomatoes, broccoli and sweet potatoes.
- Fruit: 4-5 servings
Filled with fiber and antioxidants, fruit can be fresh, frozen or canned, as long as there is no added sugar.
- Dairy: 4-5 servings
Opt for fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, but be aware that some fat-free cheeses may be high in sodium.
- Lean Meat, Poultry and Fish: 6 or fewer servings (equal to 1 ounce or less)
Focusing on eggs, heart-healthy fish such as salmon and tuna, and lean poultry such as skinless chicken breast.
- Fats and Oils: 2-3 servings
Certain fats are beneficial for the body, but be sure to avoid saturated and trans fats.
In a given week, DASH dieters should also have 4-5 servings of nuts, seeds and legumes, and fewer than five servings of sweets.
The DASH diet’s basic principles of plant-based nutrition align with Florida Hospital’s CREATION Health model for preventing disease and improving overall health – something Nesov says can help us be more in tune with God and nature.
“CREATION Health is based on biblical texts, and if you think about it, God gave us everything we need,” Nesov says. “The human body is a gift. How can you better appreciate it when you’re taking care of it every day?”
Getting Started on DASH
Patients interested in switching up their diet should first identify what it is they want to achieve.
“If you’re ready to choose a healthier lifestyle for your overall wellness, make sure that you become your own advocate in identifying how you would like to increase your functioning or what symptoms you’d like to decrease,” Nesov advises.
Once you’ve settled on your goals, get your health team involved. “Your physician, nutritionist, any specialty doctors you work with and even mental health providers can help ensure your diet is going to be safe and successful to your specific health needs,” Nesov says.