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Heart Health is Tied to Mental Health

February is American Heart Month!

Recent research confirms the phrase “you are what you eat” may be true, especially when it comes to effects on mental health. The study reports that a heart-healthy diet can have a positive impact on how you feel.

Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) has been shown to lower high blood pressure and bad cholesterol, but it can also reduce depression according to a study that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 70th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles next month.

It’s estimated that approximately 16.2 million adults in this country—or approximately 6.7% of the adult population—had at least one major depressive episode in 2016, making it one of the most common mental health conditions. Those with depression may experience persistent feelings of hopelessness, sadness, or irritability, and may lose interest in once pleasurable activities, have difficulty sleeping, and even have suicidal thoughts.

A family history of depression, traumatic or stressful experiences, and physical illness are among the risk factors for depression. This new study suggests that the risk of depression can be lowered simply by eating better.

Interesting Findings

The diet study, authored by Dr. Laurel Cherian, researcher at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, included 964 participants with an average age of 81, were monitored for just over six years. Participants were divided into three groups based on how closely they adhered to diets, including the DASH diet, Mediterranean diet, and a traditional Western diet. The Western diet is often high in saturated fats and red meats and low in fruits and vegetables.

Depression symptoms, including feeling hopeless about the future, were studied. The participants also detailed how often they ate various foods, and researchers looked at how closely the participants’ diets followed diets. Researchers found those in the two groups that followed the DASH diet most closely were less likely to develop depression than those in the group that did not follow it closely.

Among the top group of DASH adherers, the odds of becoming depressed were 11% less than the lowest group. Conversely, the more closely people followed a Western diet, the more likely they were to develop depression.

Cherian notes the study links the DASH diet to a reduced risk of depression, but doesn’t prove it leads to reduced risk: “Future studies are needed to confirm these results and to determine the best nutritional components of the DASH diet to prevent depression later in life and to best help people keep brains healthy.”

She continued, “Depression is common in older adults and more frequent in people with memory problems, vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or people who have had a stroke. Making a lifestyle change like changing your diet is often preferred over taking medications, so we wanted to see if diet could be an effective way to reduce the risk of depression.”

What is DASH?

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute explains that DASH is a flexible and balanced eating plan to help create a heart-healthy eating style for life. The DASH plan requires no special foods and, instead, provides daily and weekly nutritional goals. The plan recommends:

  • Eating vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
  • Including fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils.
  • Limiting foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils.
  • Limiting sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets.

When following the DASH eating plan, it’s important to choose foods that are:

  • Low in saturated and trans fats.
  • Rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein.
  • Lower in sodium.

The Final Word

The gist of this is, eat plants (and lots of them), including fruits and veggies, whole grains (in unprocessed form, ideally), seeds and nuts, with a few lean proteins like fish and yogurt. Avoid foods made with added sugar or flour (breads, baked goods, cereals, and pastas), and minimize animal fats, processed meats, and butter.

Occasional intake of these “bad” foods is probably fine, but everything in moderation. And, for those of you trying to lose weight, you can’t go wrong with colorful fruits and veggies. No one ever gained weight eating berries or broccoli! Quality matters over quantity, and, when it comes to what we eat, quality really, really matters.

For more information on keeping your heart healthy or to schedule an appointment to discuss any heart concerns you may have, contact the caring providers of CCHC Heart and Vascular Specialists at 252-63-HEART (634-3278).

(Sources: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Harvard Medical School; American Academy of Neurology; Mayo Clinic; United Press International, Inc.; and U.S. News and World Report.)