One More Reason to Try the DASH Diet—and How

It's a sensible eating plan that is proven to protect the heart.

Video: Healthful Eating Recipes

Video: Healthful Eating Recipes

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Food is not the enemy. So proves an eating plan whose health gains keep emerging.

Past research has shown that adopting the "DASH" (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet—easy on fats, red meat, and sweets but rich in fruits, veggies, and low-fat dairy products—can deflate elevated blood pressure in just two weeks' time, working about as well for people with hypertension as medication can. It has also been shown to substantially lower blood pressure among those at risk for hypertension, and lower "bad" cholesterol levels, too. What's more, the diet (.pdf)—which also incorporates fish, poultry, nuts, and whole grains—appears to have even greater blood pressure-lowering benefits when people also consume less salt. The latest reason to check DASH out: The diet may help women significantly lower their risk of heart disease and stroke, suggests a new study out today in the Archives of Internal Medicine. More than 88,500 healthy women ages 34 to 59 were followed for 24 years, and their eating habits were evaluated intermittently. Those whose diets most closely resembled DASH were 24 percent less likely to develop heart disease and 18 percent less likely to have a stroke than those women whose diets strayed most from DASH.

"It's a very healthy diet; there's no downside" says Eva Obarzanek, a research nutritionist at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, project officer for much of the earlier DASH research. "I think it should be recommended for everybody, with or without high blood pressure."

The DASH plan can be tailored to meet a person's daily calorie needs, but a sample day's menu, based on 2,000 calories, might include: 6 to 8 servings of whole grains; 4 to 5 servings of vegetables; 4 to 5 servings of fruits; 2 to 3 servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy products; 6 or fewer ounces of lean meats, like poultry or fish; and 2 to 3 servings of fats and oils. Nuts, seeds, and legumes should be sprinkled in throughout the week, in 4 to 5 servings; and sweets should be limited to 5 or fewer servings per week, according to a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute pamphlet called Your Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure With DASH.

High blood pressure, Obarzanek says, affects more than 1 in 3 American adults and is a potentially dangerous chronic condition that often goes unnoticed. If uncontrolled, it can damage the body's organs. Furthermore, the risk of its onset rises with age; nearly 30 percent of adults 18 and over show early signs of hypertension, called prehypertension, which can worsen if untreated. Since high blood pressure increases the odds of stroke and heart disease, the diet offers one way people can safely protect themselves.