The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet is an eating plan that was specifically developed by nutritionists and other health professionals to address some of the underlying causes of high blood pressure: poor diet and obesity.
A Major Risk Factor
Why worry about blood pressure? Because hypertension (high blood pressure) is one of the fundamental, controllable risk factors for cardiovascular disease. As in: heart attack and stroke. Together, these conditions represent our number one killer. Given all the attention paid to cancer, you might have thought that cancer was our biggest threat. It’s not. That dubious distinction still goes to heart disease, here and throughout most of the industrialized world.
While we’ve made great strides in recent decades—men are no longer routinely dropping dead of heart attacks in their 40s, for instance—the battle continues. The relatively recent removal of toxic trans fatty acids (e.g. shelf-stable synthetic “lard”) from the food supply, and the introduction of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, have combined to vastly improve overall cardiovascular fitness in America. But heart disease can take hold in virtually anyone, and there are numerous risk factors that must be addressed in order to limit your own risk.
While high blood cholesterol was once viewed as a major risk factor, we now know that relatively little of that risk comes from dietary intake of cholesterol-laden foods. In fact, only about one quarter of the cholesterol circulating in a person’s bloodstream can be attributed to the foods one has eaten. The rest is generated in the body, and largely depends on an individual’s genetic makeup. That’s why statin drugs have proven so successful; they limit this “endogenous” production of cholesterol.
High Blood Pressure Equals Elevated Risk of Stroke and Heart Attack
But blood pressure remains an important target for the control of heart disease. High blood pressure is associated with an elevated risk of heart attack or stroke, and must be controlled, through diet, lifestyle, or medications. The latter should be viewed as a last resort; the former should be viewed as an invitation to take charge of your own health. Antihypertensive (blood pressure-lowering) drugs are a boon, especially for those who find it difficult to control their blood pressure through exercise and proper diet. But the best approach of all is to eat right, get plenty of exercise, get adequate sleep, and lose any excess weight.
Developed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (a division of the National Institutes of Health), the DASH diet is similar to the classic Mediterranean diet. Like that eating pattern, DASH features lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes, some dairy—and relatively little red meat or added sugars.
The DASH diet has been proven to significantly reduce blood pressure among people with “high normal blood pressure” (formerly called “pre-hypertension”), and among people with outright hypertension, even in the absence of any weight loss. DASH was designed based on rigorous testing at major medical facilities across the country in the early ‘90s.
Research suggests that the high fiber content of whole plant foods, and certain minerals, such as magnesium and potassium, which are abundant in these foods, may account for its anti-hypertensive effects. Foods high in fiber, minerals and heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fats (such as nuts) may be especially healthful. These and other plant foods are also rich in natural antioxidant compounds, which may play an important role in helping to prevent common diseases. Within two weeks of starting the DASH diet, many hypertensive patients are likely to experience appreciable changes in blood pressure.
It should be noted that excess salt in the diet has been linked to elevated blood pressure in certain individuals who are deemed to be “salt sensitive”. These people, especially, may benefit from reductions in the intake of table salt. Of course, many processed and packaged foods—which are excluded from the DASH diet—are sources of excess salt in most Americans’ diets.
So simply adopting this eating pattern—and declining to grab the salt shaker—may serve to lower salt intake, and blood pressure, among these individuals.