What Is The DASH Diet? Science Says It's Amazing For Your Mental Health

Diets are kind of like jeans: There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all. Ever since college, I’ve gone through the wringer trying to find a food plan that works for me, and for years, I’ve witnessed my mom, sisters, and girlfriends trying to find the "x" that marks the spot with foods that will work for their individual bodies. It’s true that no two bodies are exactly alike, but when it comes down to it, everyone’s goal is the same: to eat well, and feel good. Enter the DASH diet — and what is the DASH diet, you may ask? In short, it’s an uncomplicated way of eating to revamp your lifestyle and, chances are, you’re either already following it, or very close to hitting the nail on the head.

Per social media’s shift from selfies to foodtography over the last few years, what you’re eating (and what everyone else is eating, too) is in plain sight every time you scroll through your feed. Now, there are pros and cons to the foodie phenomenon: On the one hand, you shouldn’t feel that, just because Jeanette Ogden of ShutTheKaleUp scoops a dollop of Siggi’s yogurt on her avocado toast, that means you have to follow suit. But it’s definitely beneficial to be exposed to so many healthy meal options to experiment with. After all, the better you eat, the better you feel, which is exactly the concept behind the DASH diet.

Now that you've been formally introduced to the DASH diet, let's talk about what it is, and most importantly, the food involved in this way of eating.

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DASH may sound like another BS quick-fix, but it’s actually a food program you can easily follow your whole life through, without having to actively think about it too much. Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, breaks the acronym down for Elite Daily, explaining that DASH actually stands for "dietary approaches to stop hypertension."

“In other words,” she says, “it was created to help people lower their blood pressure through portion control, reduced sodium intake, and by eating the right nutrients.”

I know that sounds super involved, but trust me, if you actually sit down and think about the types of foods you eat on a daily basis, you’re probably following DASH intuitively. As far as food goes, a typical DASH menu is actually quite colorful, comprised of fresh produce, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, legumes, and nuts. I mean, is it just me, or does that not sound like a “diet” at all?

Of course, there are some key differences between DASH and a traditional Western diet that I should point out. For one thing, DASH eaters try to avoid “processed, bleached, and refined foods,” Derocha says. But, above all, the biggest difference can be seen in the amount of sodium consumed in either diet.

“The typical Western diet can contain up to 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, while the DASH diet reduces this number to less than 2,300 milligrams per day,” Derocha tells Elite Daily. Yeah, I'd say that's pretty significant, wouldn't you?

The food you eat directly affects how your body feels and functions, but it also plays a role in your mental health, as well.

So here's where the real perks of the DASH diet kick in. I know myself, and before I dove headfirst into all my health and wellness research, I thought, as long as I didn’t have a stomach ache at the end of the night, whatever I was putting into my body must not bother it much. Clearly, I was mistaken.

The truth is, your health and your happiness both stem from — are you ready for this? — your gut. Skeptical? Here’s how it works: According to Dr. Joseph Galati, medical director for the Center of Liver Disease and Transplantation at the Methodist Hospital in Houston, your gut is made up of “a very fragile collection of bacteria,” and the way this bacteria becomes compromised is when you consume a diet “high in processed foods and low in fiber.” It sounds like a disaster for your digestive track, and it is, but what happens in the gut doesn’t just affect your tummy; it causes inflammation all over your insides.

“The inflammation [happens] within the liver," Dr. Galati tells Elite Daily, which then leads to "inflammation within the heart", and eventually "alters neurologic function." In other words, once bad bacteria reaches the gut, the gut’s reaction sparks a wildfire that negatively impacts the liver, the heart, and eventually, how your brain works throughout the day. How’s that for a domino effect? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I would assume all of that is more than enough to make anyone feel a little irritable.

Following the DASH diet will not only help improve the healthy state of your insides, but it'll also do wonders for your mood, too.

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As someone who struggles with irritable bowel syndrome, I know firsthand that, when your gut gets mad, you get mad. And this isn’t just me being moody, BTW. According to Derocha, research shows bad gut bacteria and inflammation can trigger “anxiety and depression, and can potentially impact the stress hormone cortisol.” It's not a good time, as I'm sure you can imagine.

What's more, The Atlantic reports the results of a recent study, in which 964 elderly patients adhered to the DASH diet over the course of six and a half years. According to the outlet, the study participants were found to have "lower rates of depression" when compared to those eating a traditional Western diet. Coincidence? I think not, and neither does the study's lead author, assistant professor of vascular neurology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Laurel J. Cherian:

I think we need to view food as medicine. Medications to treat depression are wonderful, but for many people, it's going to be a combination of things.

The answer, then, is simple, right? Use food as fuel, as well as medicine, to ensure your physical and mental health are at their most optimal levels. Most of you probably already follow the DASH diet to an extent, but even if you follow a traditional Western diet, making the switch is super easy (and well worth it).

For starters, Derocha says, rather than grabbing take-out on your way home from work, see what you can whip up in your own kitchen.

"When seasoning food," she tells Elite Daily, "use herbs and spices instead of salt," to lower the sodium content. As for the actual foods you'll be eating, start slow by adding a few veggies here, a piece of fruit there. Eventually, your body will get used to the abundance of fiber-rich, nutrient-dense foods.

Listen, have your cake, but eat predominantly healthy, too. By adhering to the DASH diet and supporting your gut, aka "the second brain," you're also supporting your mental health, and there's nothing more satisfying than that.