Breaking Down the “DASH Diet” for Healthy Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is called the “silent epidemic.” So many people have it, yet it rarely shows any warning signs or symptoms. For this reason it can be easy to miss if you’re not looking out for it. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), almost half of the adults in the US have hypertension and most don’t have it under control. In 2019, this resulted in over half a million deaths.
While seemingly benign, high blood pressure can be very dangerous. It increases your risk for a heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and blindness. Regular blood pressure screening along with healthy diet practices are key. Let’s talk more about how your diet and lifestyle specifically can help.
I think we all recognize that the foods you eat affect so many aspects of your health. Fortunately it’s never too late to start enjoying a more “heart-healthy” diet. In fact, there is one diet that’s been specially designed to help with high blood pressure, the DASH diet: Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. And research says it works.
*Disclaimer: If your doctor recommends medication to help you control your blood pressure, be sure to take it as directed and go for routine monitoring or testing as required.
What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is how much pressure your heart needs to use to keep blood flowing through your vessels. You can think of it as water flowing through a flexible tube versus flowing through a stiff, hard, narrow pipe. Imagine the amount of pressure you would need to push the water through the hose versus the pipe. That’s how blood pressure works. The more force that’s needed, the more pressure it puts on your vessels, and the more damage it can do to the pump and the vessels. This is especially true when high blood pressure persists over many years.
A normal blood pressure reading is 120/80 mm Hg. The first number (in this case, 120 mm Hg) is the systolic pressure in your vessels as your heart beats. The second number (in this case, 80 mm Hg) is the diastolic pressure in your vessels between beats. If your blood pressure is slightly higher than these numbers, that’s considered “elevated.” However, if your blood pressure gets above 130/80 mm Hg, you may be diagnosed with hypertension.
High blood pressure usually develops over many years. It can happen as a result of diabetes or obesity, or not getting enough physical activity. It can also sometimes happen during pregnancy.
The good news is that there are ways you can manage high blood pressure and lower your risk for heart disease (angina, heart attack, heart failure), stroke, kidney disease, and vision loss.
Healthy lifestyle for healthy blood pressure
There are several healthy lifestyle habits, apart from diet, that can lower your risk for high blood pressure. Number one is smoking. If you smoke, it’s time to quit. Ask me about resources for smoking cessation if this is something you are ready to tackle but are feeling frustrated. It will make such a world of difference for your health.
Another lifestyle habit for healthy blood pressure (and your overall health) is exercise. The standard recommendation is to get at least 150 minutes of physical activity every week. That can be done with as little as 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week.
Managing stress is another huge lifestyle factor that influences blood pressure. Unfortunately this is one area that may take time to reduce or in some cases is very difficult to overcome. Just know it does increase blood pressure and anything you can do to manage stress helps.
Sodium and your blood pressure
Blood pressure is also greatly impacted by your nutrition. There are several nutrients that can increase or decrease your blood pressure, depending on how much you consume. The nutrients associated with lower blood pressure include the minerals potassium, magnesium, and calcium, along with fiber and protein. The most infamous nutrient linked to increased blood pressure is sodium.
According to the American Heart Association, in general, the more sodium you consume, the higher your blood pressure. Sodium is one part of the salt compound, sodium chloride. One of the biggest sources of sodium in the diet is not from your kitchen salt shaker, but the sodium hidden in processed and packaged foods.
A recent study enrolled 20,995 participants with a history of stroke or high blood pressure to see if using a lower-sodium salt substitute would reduce their risk of stroke, heart incidents, and death. Half of the participants continued to use regular salt over several years, while half of them agreed to use the salt substitute (75% sodium chloride and 25% potassium chloride). After almost most five years, the participants who consumed the lower-sodium salt had fewer strokes, heart incidents, and deaths. Their risks were reduced by 12-14% which is substantial when there are millions of people at high risk from hypertension.
The DASH diet: Have you heard of it?
There is a diet plan that has been created specifically for hypertension. The DASH diet has been deemed one of the best overall diets by U.S. News and is ranked among the top diets in the categories of heart-healthy, healthy eating, diabetes, easy-to-follow, and overall diets. Harvard Health also rated the DASH diet and says, “research supports the use of the DASH diet as a healthy eating pattern that may help to lower blood pressure, and prevent or reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, kidney disease, and gout.” Some studies show that the blood pressure-lowering effect of the DASH diet can be similar to that of people taking medication.
The DASH diet is full of heart-healthy foods with blood-pressure-lowering nutrients. The recommendations for a 2,000 calorie per day intake include:
- whole grains
- low-sugar dairy
- meat, poultry, or fish
- healthy fats and oils (olive oil primarily)
- nuts, seeds, or beans
In fact, The DASH diet somewhat mimics the Mediterranean diet in that it promotes a whole foods diet and discourages fast food, processed foods, sweets and sweetened beverages.
As mentioned, the health benefits of eating a DASH diet are vast and include many of the most common diseases impacting adults.
One thing to keep in mind when transitioning to a higher-fiber diet with more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is to do this slowly in order to reduce your risk of experiencing gas and bloating. This can easily be accomplished by increasing these plant-based foods by one or two per week until you’re eating the recommended amounts.
If you have high blood pressure or simply want to start a healthier diet to reduce your risk for a whole host of diseases, then the DASH diet may be the plan you need. The DASH diet is rich in foods that are highly nutritious and can help you enjoy a longer life free of stroke, heart disease, kidney disease, blindness, diabetes, and gout.
The DASH diet is considered one of the easiest diets to follow and includes simple nutritional improvements like enjoying more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Worried about high blood pressure? Interested in how to best implement the dietary and lifestyle habits to reduce your risk of heart issues and other diseases? Want help creating a doable plan so that you can live your longest, healthiest life? Book an appointment with me today to talk through how this can work for you. There are several quick and simple steps you can take to get started!