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The In's and Out's of the DASH Diet- Avoiding the Silent Epidemic

[Disclaimer: If your doctor recommends medication to help you control your blood pressure, be sure to continue to take this as directed and continue to follow up for routine monitoring.]

 

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is often referred to as the "silent epidemic" because of its widespread prevalence and because a significant number of individuals are affected by it, but don’t exhibit any warning signs or symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly half of adults in the US suffer from hypertension, with a majority lacking proper control over it. In 2019 alone, this condition contributed to over half a million deaths. The implications of high blood pressure are pretty scary. High blood pressure increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, kidney diseases, and even blindness. This is why regular blood pressure screenings and incorporating a healthy diet and lifestyle are so important.

 

So let’s talk about the “how” of all this…..after all that’s why you are here right?

The foods you eat affect so many aspects of your health and 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. That’s called the DASH diet: Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. And the research says it works.

 

So what is blood pressure anyways?

 Blood pressure is how much pressure your heart needs to use to keep blood flowing through your vessels. The more force that’s needed, the more pressure it puts on your vessels, and the more damage it can do to the pump (your heart) and the vessels. The affects of high blood pressure are even more damaging as the vessel sizes get smaller, like in your kidneys, brain and eyes.

 

Blood pressure readings are reported as systolic/diastolic millimeters of mercury (mmHg). The systolic number represents the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart contracts (beats) and the diastolic number represents the pressure in your vessels when your heart is relaxed.


According to the American Heart Association, a “normal” blood pressure is a reading of less than 120/less than 80 mmHg. If this sounds lower than what you remember, that’s because it is! The “normal” readings were updated a few years ago. Once your blood pressure readings are  greater than 130 systolic OR greater than 80 diastolic, this is considered hypertension. For more information from the AHA about these readings click here.


High blood pressure usually takes a few years to develop and may go unnoticed for a very long time. This is why regular monitoring is critical to early detection. The good news is there are many lifestyle and dietary ways to manage hypertension and to help reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure!

 

Healthy lifestyle for healthy blood pressure


The good news is there are several healthy lifestyle habits that can help lower your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. (And bonus, they are also helpful to reduce the risk of a bunch of other health and chronic issues too!!)

First, and maybe the most obvious in this day and age, quitting smoking and not smoking. If you currently are smoking, there are lots of resources available to help you quit. It’s certainly not easy, but the benefits are totally worth it. We even have medications now to help you quit. Talk to your doctor about them next time you go in for a check up.

The second lifestyle tip to help you achieve a healthy blood pressure is getting in regular physical activity. The recommendation is 150 minutes of exercise per week. This can be done as 30 minutes, 5 days a week. If you have never exercised before, take things slowly and build up to the 30 minutes. Even 10 minute of exercise, 3 times a day can help you meet these goals (think 10 minute walk breaks during work or taking your dog for a walk).



Consistency is key!! Try not to go longer than 2 days without exercising. But, of course, listen to your body as you are getting started and take rest as needed. And check with your doctor to make sure starting an exercise program will be safe for you, if you have any concerns or health problems.

 

The third lifestyle tip is stress management. Now this one is HARD! Mediation, yoga, or even taking time for some deep breathing during stressful moments can help reduce your stress.

The fourth (and final) lifestyle tip for blood pressure management is sleep. Getting quality sleep and enough sleep is super important for our overall health. If possible, turn off electronic devices about an hour before bedtime, make your room dark and cool to help promote a more restful sleep, and, if possible, have a regular bedtime and wake time (although sometimes this just isn’t possible – I see you shift workers).


 

Sodium and Your Blood Pressure



Nutrition is a critical determinant of blood pressure. Key nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium, along with fiber and protein, have been associated with lower blood pressure. Conversely, the most infamous nutrient linked to high blood pressure is salt – aka sodium!

 

According to the American Heart Association, the more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure (in general, if any of my athletes are reading this – remember your salt needs are different then the general population).  Most of us can recognize the salt we add to our foods via the salt shaker on our tables. But high amounts of sodium are often hidden in processed and packaged foods.

 

A recent study involving participants with a history of stroke or high blood pressure demonstrated that utilizing a lower-sodium salt substitute significantly reduced the risks of stroke, heart incidents, and death. After about 5 years on this “lower salt/salt substitute diet,” these participants reduced their risk of stroke, heart problems and death by 12-14%, which is HUGE when we are talking about millions of people with high blood pressure.


 

Introducing the DASH Diet



The DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) was specially designed to help stop and prevent high blood pressure (shocking I know….its almost like the name gives it away or something). The research surrounding the use of the DASH diet is pretty compelling too. 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, for those with stage 1 hypertension. For those with greater than stage 1 hypertension, you will likely need diet, lifestyle and medication management to get and keep your blood pressure under control.

 

So, what are the key components to the DASH Diet? – Well I am glad you asked!!

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 (6-8 servings/day)

●      fruits (4-5 servings/day)

●      vegetables (4-5 servings/day)

●      low-fat dairy (2-3 servings/day)

●      meat, poultry, or fish (no more than two 3 oz servings/day)

●      fats and oils (2-3 servings/day)

●      nuts, seeds, or beans (4-5 servings/week)

●      sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages (no more than 5 servings/week)

 

The DASH diet limits very few foods and nutrients. What is limits are sodium (which I hope you could have guess by now!), saturated and trans fats, red meat, and sweets (including sugar-sweetened beverages).

This eating pattern doesn’t just help with high blood pressure, it also helps with the other risk factors associated with high blood pressure and a bunch of other chronic health issues too!


Pro-Tip: As you start transitioning to a higher-fiber diet (like the DASH diet), go slowly as you increase fiber, this will minimize the risk of digestive discomfort. Incrementally increasing the intake of plant-based foods over time is recommended. And make sure to increase your fluid intake as you increase your fiber as well. This will help prevent constipation.

 

 

Final Thoughts


If you have high blood pressure or simply want to start a healthier diet to reduce your risk for a variety of diseases, then the DASH diet may be for you. 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.

 

If you are interested in learning more about how you can get started on the DASH diet and want help working through the process of using nutrition to improve your health, book an appointment with me today! As a registered dietitian with a masters in exercise science and background in cardiology, I am the perfect person to partner with to achieve your goals! Click here to send me an email (jenny@wsdiets.com) and request your appointment today!





References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, May 18). High Blood Pressure Symptoms and Causes. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/about.htm

 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, September 27). High blood pressure: Facts about hypertension.

 

 

Mandrola, J. M. and Neal, B. (2021). Will the Positive Findings From the SSaSS Trial on Salt Substitution Silence the Salt Skeptics? Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/957510#vp_1

 

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). DASH Eating plan. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/dash-eating-plan

 

Neal, B., Wu, Y., Feng, X., Zhang, R., Zhang, Y., Shi, J., Zhang, J., Tian, M., Huang, L., Li, Z., Yu, Y., Zhao, Y., Zhou, B., Sun, J., Liu, Y., Yin, X., Hao, Z., Yu, J., Li, K. C., Zhang, X., … Elliott, P. (2021). Effect of Salt Substitution on Cardiovascular Events and Death. The New England journal of medicine, 385(12), 1067–1077. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa2105675

 

U.S. News. (n.d.). Best diets 2021. https://health.usnews.com/best-diet

 

U.S. News. (n.d.). DASH diet. https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/dash-diet

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