Eating healthy foods protects against depression, new study suggests

People who eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have much lower depression rates, a new study has found. As it turns out, what’s good for your heart is also good for your mind.

The DASH diet is basically common sense: lots of fruits and vegetables; few fatty, processed foods. Image credits: Keith Weller, USDA.

The study analyzed people who have eating habits close to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. The DASH diet was recently ranked as the best diet of the year, even though it’s not really a diet in the strict sense of the word. DASH is more of a dietary pattern promoted by the U.S.-based National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to prevent and control hypertension. Think of it as a common-sense lifestyle — it encourages you to reduce the sodium in your diet, as well as foods that are high in saturated fats and sugar, and eat a variety of foods rich in nutrients such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium. More of the good foods, less of the bad ones. The DASH diet is extremely good for your heart, and it’s also a very good, healthy diet for people without any heart problems.

Researchers wanted to see what impact the DASH diet would have on other conditions — in this case, depression.

Depression and heart conditions sometimes go hand in hand.

“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,” said study author Laurel Cherian, MD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “Making a lifestyle change such as 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.”

Cherian and her colleagues recruited 964 participants with an average age of 81, evaluating them for six and a half years. They filled out questionnaires for symptoms of depression such as being bothered by things that usually didn’t affect them and feeling hopeless about the future. They were also quizzed about what kind of foods they ate, with researchers paying extra attention to how closely they followed the DASH, Mediterranean, or traditional Western Diet — which is high in saturated fats and meats, low in fruits and vegetables.

Scientists found a correlation between how closely people stick to the DASH diet, and how likely they are to develop depression. The odds of becoming depressed over time was 11 percent lower among the top group of DASH adherers versus the lowest group. Meanwhile, on the other hand, people whose eating habits were closer to the Western diet were significantly more likely to be depressed.

The findings have not yet been peer-reviewed, and will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 70th Annual Meeting.

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