Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a significant health risk for many people. This is because it makes the heart work harder than it should and hardens the walls of arteries. It can lead to hemorrhage in the brain or cause the kidneys to function poorly or not at all. Uncontrolled, high blood pressure can lead to heart and kidney disease, stroke and blindness.
Given the extensive dangers hypertension, those frequent reminders to use less salt (sodium) and pull back from high-fat meats make more sense, don’t they? Various medications can help, even control, high blood pressure, but there is a first line of attack to consider that involves no medication, just healthier eating habits.
The Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension, or DASH, eating plan was devised in the early 1990s by the US-based National Institutes of Health to prevent and control hypertension. The result was a medication-free approach that lowers, even prevents, high blood pressure.
DASH is not so much a diet as a method for healthy eating. It focusses on fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. It also means a reduction in sodium, sweets, red meat and other foods high in saturated fat. DASH also emphasizes getting potassium from food because a potassium-rich diet may help to reduce elevated blood pressure.
The goal behind creating DASH was to help with hypertension, but since then, research has identified more benefits than originally expected. DASH improves blood cholesterol levels and other coronary risk factors and may help protect against diabetes and kidney stones. Numerous studies have also shown that the diet reduces the risk of many diseases, including some kinds of cancer, stroke, heart disease, heart failure, kidney stones and diabetes.
More recently, studies from John Hopkins University identified other potential benefits. Gout, a very painful form of arthritis caused by the build-up of uric acid, may be helped via DASH. Another study suggests that people adhering or being close to a DASH plan are less likely to develop chronic kidney disease.
So far it looks good for DASH. And there is no bad news. Your eating will be more healthy and you will feel better. The question to ask then, is: How do I DASH? Good news there, too. The DASH eating plan requires no special foods and has no hard-to-follow recipes. It simply calls for a certain number of daily servings from various food groups. The number of servings depends on the number of calories you should be consuming each day, and that level depends on your age and how active you are.
For example, a moderately active male aged 31 to 50, should be taking in 2,400-2,600 calories daily. A sedentary female over age 50 should consume 1,600 calories daily. The next step is to convert those numbers into portions from the DASH menu. There are many resources available online or discuss DASH with your healthcare provider.
A heart-healthy diet such as DASH offers far more benefits than reducing hypertension, and it provides an excellent model for healthy eating for everyone in the family.
Written by Dr. Paul Martiquet, Medical Health Officer for the Sunshine Coast and Powell River.