“Realistic” and “diet” are two words that you don’t often see together. For most people, following the dietary recommendations of Atkin’s, Paleo, or South Beach is simply impossible for any sustained period of time. So, is there a diet that’s feasible and realistic for everyday people? Yes—and the best news is that it has been proven to effectively lower blood pressure.
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH eating plan, is so effective that it has been recommended by the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). The overall goal of the DASH diet is simple: consume less salt and more good-for-you foods.
The DASH Diet emphasizes foods from the U.S. government’s MyPlate (formerly known as the “food pyramid”). Eating foods like fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole grains is strongly encouraged. On the flip-side, DASH dieters are instructed to avoid sodium, processed foods, saturated fats, and sweets. Protein, calcium, potassium, and magnesium are key nutrients in DASH.
A 2,000-calories-per-day DASH eating plan includes:
- 6-8 servings of grains (most should be whole grains)
- 4-5 servings of vegetables
- 4-5 servings of fruit
- 2-3 servings of low-fat dairy
- 6 or fewer servings of lean meat, poultry, and fish
- 2-3 servings of fats and oils
- 4-5 servings of nuts, seeds, and legumes per week
- 5 or fewer servings of sweets/sugars per week
Specifically, the diet also recommends that individuals pay careful attention to keeping their sodium levels below 2,300 milligrams per day, with a goal of eventually decreasing the level to 1,500 milligrams.
A 1994 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health looked at 456 subjects, some with high blood pressure and some with normal cardiovascular function. The participants were split into three dietary groups: the typical American diet, the typical American diet with extra fruits and vegetables added, or the DASH diet. The study set sodium consumption at 3,000 milligrams per participant, a level about 20 percent below average for most Americans.
After eight weeks, researchers found a substantial decrease in blood pressure levels of the group that ate more fruits and vegetables and a dramatic decrease in the group on the DASH diet. Researchers reported that these dietary-based results were comparable to the effects of a patient being prescribed one blood pressure medication.
Other studies have shown DASH to be effective in increasing HDL “good” cholesterol and lowering LDL “bad” cholesterol. A few studies have even shown that DASH is helpful in preventing and controlling diabetes.
If you’d like to get started with DASH, the NHLBI has several eating guides and informational downloads available on their website. As always, first speak with your physician before starting a new diet or treatment to make sure it is right for you.
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