Diet, rather than drugs, should be the first defense against high blood pressure and the damage it causes. And for the first time, the government has issued specific recommendations on how to use a menu to combat the disease.
Three servings of low-fat dairy products and eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables are the heart of the DASH Diet, named for a "Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension" study. The National Institutes of Health's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends the DASH diet be used before medication to try to control mild hypertension.During the course of the study, participants' blood pressure lowered quickly and convincingly. Those with mild hypertension saw systolic pressure drop an average of 11 points and diastolic 5. The decreases are similar to those achieved with some medications, said Marlene Windhauser, associate professor of research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge and co-investigator for the DASH study.
The decreased blood pressure, at that level, cuts the risk of a stroke by about 25 percent.
The systolic pressure is measured as the heart pumps or contracts. Diastolic pressure is measured between beats. The ideal blood pressure reading is 120 over 80. On the DASH diet, even people with normal blood pressure saw a decrease of five points systolic and three diastolic.
Windhauser was in Utah this week to participate in the annual Nutrition and Food Science Workshop at Utah State University. She also used the trip to Utah to visit with local media to explain the benefits of the diet recommendation.
The primary benefits of the DASH diet seem to derive from the combination of potassium, calcium and magnesium, Windhauser said. Besides lowering blood pressure the diet may ward off osteoporosis. A low-fat diet also helps lower cholesterol, she said. "It's an overall healthy eating plan."
She said results from the diet can be seen in as little as two weeks. But she also warns that people who are already taking medication shouldn't stop without consulting their doctor first.
While eight to 10 servings daily sounds like a lot of fruits and vegetables, this is not a vegetarian diet, according to Windhauser. Meat's fine, in moderation, and grains and nuts and other essential foods are a must. But none of those can be the focus of the diet.
Again, if eight to 10 servings seems to be a lot of fruits and vegetables, remember what's considered a serving. A rule of thumb is a half-cup. So a large apple may be two servings. A salad can be several. Even a large glass of orange juice counts as two.
"We don't expect people to go on this tomorrow," said Wind-hauser. "Most people will need to make small changes at first. And they'll see some benefits even with small changes. This is doable. Snack on fruits and vegetables instead of a candy bar."
The key is getting a variety of fruits and vegetables, especially those rich in potassium and magnesium, such as potatoes, greens, bananas, orange juice and apricots. The study used all kinds of vegetables, including fresh, frozen and canned.