Control hypertension (maybe even prevent it) with the DASH diet

May 6, 2015 Providence Health Team

The name alone sounds like a quick fix for hypertension (also called high blood pressure). And, it may not be that far off. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan is aimed specifically at controlling (or preventing) high blood pressure – naturally.

Control hypertension with the DASH dietAccording to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an astonishing 1 in every 3 American adults has hypertension, and many take medication to treat it. But, if you’re told you have high blood pressure, don’t assume a trip to the pharmacy is your next step. Pills aren’t always your first means to treat it.

Research studies (sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute) have determined that the DASH eating plan lowers blood pressure in as few as 14 days. So, talk to your Providence primary care provider to see if giving it a try – rather than taking medication – is a good option for you. 

What is hypertension?

As blood circulates through your body, pressure is applied against the artery walls. The force of this pressure is measured at two stages: first when your heart beats while pumping blood (systolic) and then while it rests in between (diastolic). A normal blood pressure reading is about 120/80 or even slightly lower.

Hypertension occurs when those numbers reach or exceed 140/80. It indicates that your heart is working harder than it should be – causing damage to your blood vessels and organs.

Effects of hypertension. If your blood pressure is consistently high and uncontrolled, your risk of heart attack or stroke increases. Or, damage to blood vessels can lead to serious consequences such as heart disease, kidney disease, dementia, eye damage, and sexual dysfunction. Other possible dangers of high blood pressure are bone loss (especially in older women) and sleep apnea.

How the DASH diet works

The DASH diet can help reduce blood pressure if it’s high, or keep it in check if it’s normal. It incorporates all the basic food groups so you won’t feel deprived – since you’re not really “dieting.”

Basically, you enjoy healthy foods that boost your protein and fiber intake and up your calcium, magnesium and potassium – key nutrients that are known to reduce blood pressure. The DASH diet emphasizes eating moderate amounts of these foods, based on your caloric needs (typically 1,600 to 2,600 calories per day): 

Fish and poultry (2-3 servings daily). All types of fish, chicken, turkey and eggs are excellent, protein-rich choices.

Fruits and vegetables (4-6 servings of each daily). Fresh, whole fruits and berries are best – including the edible peels. They’re loaded with vitamins and BP-lowering minerals like potassium and magnesium. Also choose leafy greens, broccoli, green beans and peas, carrots, sweet potatoes and tomatoes, which are mineral-rich and high in fiber. 

Legumes, nuts and seeds (3-5 servings per week). Choose beans of all colors, lentils, almonds and walnuts, and sunflower and pumpkin seeds. They’re rich sources of energy, packed with protein and will keep you full and going strong all day.

Low-fat or no-fat dairy products (2-4 servings daily). Milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese and sour cream are high in protein and calcium. Some fat-free cheeses are loaded with sodium, though, so be sure check the label.

Whole grains (6-8 servings daily). Oatmeal, brown rice and whole wheat pastas, breads and cereals are high in fiber and super sources of energy. 

Vegetable oils (2-3 servings daily). Cook (or dip) your foods in heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil – the top-pick oil for everything. Canola, safflower, sunflower, avocado and almond oils are also good (and readily available) for most of your cooking needs.

And, try to limit these BP-raising foods and drinks to just 1 to 2 servings per week:

  • Full-fat foods like butter, cream, mayo and dressings
  • Red meat such as beef, pork and lamb
  • Processed foods like salty crackers, chips and popcorn, fried foods, cured deli meats and processed cheeses. Limit sodium to 2,300 mg (about 1 teaspoon) per day.
  • Sugary foods like sweets or added-sugar snacks and beverages
  • Alcoholic drinks – heavy drinking can raise blood pressure

Who is a good candidate for the DASH diet?

If your blood pressure is regularly 140/90 or above, your Providence primary care provider may recommend the DASH eating plan. Or, if you simply want to work to avoid hypertension, this could be a good choice for you.

Risk factors. Several (no-fault) factors increase your risk of getting hypertension: age, race and certain medical conditions. You’re at higher risk of developing it if you’re a man older than 45 or a woman older than 65, African-American, diabetic or have chronic kidney disease, or have a family history of high blood pressure.

Also, overweight or obese people, and those with unhealthy lifestyle habits (smoking, excessive drinking, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, long-lasting stress) are more likely to suffer from hypertension. High sodium intake, and low levels of vitamin D and potassium (which helps balance sodium) can also cause high blood pressure. 

The DASH diet is a well-established, credible eating plan that promises real health benefits. Tests indicate it improves blood lipids (for heart health), helps prevent diabetes, osteoporosis and certain cancers (like colorectal) and reduces cholesterol and inflammation. And, because it’s rich in low-calorie foods, it might even help you shed unwanted pounds.

The DASH diet is endorsed by health organizations like the American Heart Association and emphasizes eating fresh, real foods that are tasty and satisfying. So, it’s great for the whole family.

Before you embark on a new eating plan or change or discontinue a medication, be sure to talk to your Providence primary care provider. Don’t have one? You can search our online provider directory or find a clinic in your neighborhood.

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