High blood pressure, or hypertension, is often called “the silent killer.” Because it presents no obvious physical symptoms, many people who suffer from it are unaware of their condition or the risk it poses to their health. Many studies have drawn connections between hypertension and diet – excess consumption of sodium, for example, is linked to elevated blood pressure. Today that link is clearer than ever.
What is DASH?
In recent years, nutritionists and medical researchers have discovered a great deal of new information about the nutrients in food and how they can influence our health. One result of this work is the creation of a diet that has proven to lower blood pressure significantly without the use of medication. Known as the DASH diet – Dietary Approaches to Reducing Hypertension – it focuses on consuming foods that are low in saturated fat, total fat, cholesterol, processed sugar, and sodium. Examples of the kinds of foods included in the diet are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, poultry, and low- or no-fat dairy products.
Proven Results with DASH
The proof of the effectiveness of the DASH plan comes from two studies sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). The first study included 459 adults, evenly divided between men and women, of whom 27% had high blood pressure. The participants were divided into three groups: one group was fed a typical American diet; the second group ate the same diet, supplemented by additional fruits and vegetables; the final group ate a DASH diet. All participants consumed about 3,000 milligrams of sodium daily. While members of both the second and third groups showed reduced hypertension, the reductions under the DASH were significantly greater. Participants on the DASH plan showed results as quickly as two weeks after changing their diets.
The second study focused more specifically on the role of dietary sodium in conjunction with different diets. In this study, 412 individuals were divided into two groups: one on a typical American diet and one on the DASH plan. The researchers then varied the participants’ daily intake of sodium each month. One month, participants received 3,300 milligrams of sodium daily, about what the average American consumes. The amount was then reduced to 2,300 milligrams/day for a month, and to 1,500 for a month. Again, those on the DASH diet showed the greatest reductions in blood pressure, with the most dramatic results produced by the lowest-sodium (1,500 milligrams/day) DASH diet. Even participants who had only very slightly elevated blood pressure, or prehypertension, showed great improvement under the plan.
The DASH Diet
The DASH diet requires no special foods or supplements, nor does it require any additional preparation than a standard diet. It emphasizes the importance of eating foods that contain nutrients that researchers have linked to lower blood pressure, including potassium, calcium, magnesium, protein, and fiber. The DASH plan contains recommendations for daily servings from several different food groups. These include:
- 6-8 servings of whole grain (1 serving = 1 slice of bread, 1 ounce dry cereal, or ½ cup cooked cereal, pasta, or rice.
- 4-5 servings of vegetables (1 serving = 1 cup raw leafy vegetables, ½ cup cooked vegetables, or ½ cup vegetable juice)
- 4-5 servings of fruit (1 serving = 1 medium fruit, ¼ cup dried fruit, ½ cup fresh, frozen, or canned fruit, or ½ cup fruit juice)
- 2-3 servings of low/no fat dairy (1 serving = 1 cup milk or yogurt, or 1 ½ ounces of cheese)
- 6 or fewer servings of lean meat/poultry/fish (1 serving = 1 ounce cooked meat or 1 egg)
- 2-3 servings of fats or oils (1 serving = 1 teaspoon of margarine of vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise, or 2 tablespoons of salad dressing)
In addition, the diet prescribes weekly dietary intake of two other food groups:
- 4-5 servings/week of nuts/seeds/legumes (1 serving = 1/3 cup nuts, ½ cup cooked peas or beans, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, or ½ ounce of seeds)
- 5 or less servings/week of sugars (1 serving = 1 tablespoon of sugar/jelly/jam, ½ cup of sorbet or gelatin, or 1 cup lemonade)
Watch the Salt
As mentioned earlier, the DASH diet has its greatest benefits in lowering blood pressure when you limit sodium intake as well. Because the DASH plan includes lots of foods that are naturally low in sodium, such as fruits and vegetables, your sodium intake will likely decrease just by adopting the diet. However, a lot of foods and food additives contain sodium, so it is wise to monitor your food choices. A partial list of such products includes processed cereals, soy sauce, baked goods, baking soda, and monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Be sure to read the labels on processed or prepackaged foods carefully to make sure you are not getting “hidden” sodium from these products.
If you have been diagnosed with hypertension and are looking for a natural way to control your blood pressure, taking up the DASH diet is a good place to start. Of course, you should consult with a physician before you start any new dietary regimen. The DASH diet, however, has helped many people control their hypertension and lead healthier lives. It could do the same for you!