Hypertension is quickly becoming an epidemic. Its causes are varied; factors like age, family history, stress levels and diet have all been accused of causing hypertension in otherwise healthy people. Whatever the cause, the effects of high blood pressure can be fatal. Hypertension sometimes leads to serious health issues – like heart disease and stroke – if left unchecked. For some patients, medication is the only course of treatment. But for others, a healthier lifestyle is just a diet away.
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Its name is self-explanatory. The easy-to-follow diet promotes healthy eating as a way to lower blood pressure. Results have been promising. By following the DASH diet, you can lower your blood pressure by a few points in just two weeks. By maintaining the diet, you can bring your blood pressure down even further – by as much as 14 points. In addition, the nutrient-rich diet helps protect against osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Some diets eliminate an entire food group from the menu, a drastic approach that is often doomed to fail. The DASH diet, meanwhile, emphasizes variety over scarcity. You can still enjoy red meat and dessert – if you indulge in moderation. The diet consists of seven categories – fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, meat, nuts, fats and desserts. By keeping the focus on meeting your daily nutritional requirements, the DASH diet eliminates the heart’s greatest enemies – saturated fats, sodium and cholesterol – from the menu. The diet is high in three key nutrients – potassium, calcium and magnesium – that work together to help your body excrete excess salt, lowering your blood pressure as a result.
Fruits and Vegetables
You will have to make like a bunny with the DASH diet. The plan requires you to eat at least eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day, although some experts recommend as much as 10 daily servings. A single serving can be one medium piece of fruit – like an apple – or one cup of lettuce in a salad. If the idea of eating eight apples a day doesn’t appeal to you, don’t fret – adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet is easy. Try adding apple slices to your sandwich, orange segments to your salad, or broccoli rabe to your stir-fry. To add even more nutrients to your diet, put away that peeler. Edible peels contain additional fiber and nutrients. Keep the red skin on your apple and grate the orange zest into your salad. And try to make your diet as colorful as possible – the brighter the vegetable, the more powerful the antioxidants it contains. Just be wary of eating too many coconuts – this is one fruit that is high in fat.
Breads, cereals, rice and pasta all fall into the whole grain category. Ideally, you should eat between six and eight servings of whole grains a day. It might seem unrealistic, but this task is manageable. A single slice of bread counts as one serving – that sandwich you ate for lunch counts as two servings. Try choosing whole grains instead of refined. Refined grains undergo a milling process that removes fiber, iron and vitamins along with the bran and germ. Fortunately, most grocery stores carry a wide selection of whole grain breads, pastas and rice. Look for products labeled 100 percent whole grain.
Dairy products are an important part of every DASH diet. Milk, yogurt and cheese are all sources of calcium, protein and vitamin D. Unfortunately, dairy products are typically high in fat. Choose skim milk and low-fat cheese over their high-fat, creamy counterparts. Your daily menu should include two to three servings of dairy products; one cup of milk counts as a single serving.
Beef, pork, chicken and turkey are all great sources of protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc. Meat is also the source of most dietary fat and cholesterol. The DASH diet allows red meat, but be warned – it should never be the focus of the meal. Instead, think of meat as a side dish. Your fruits and vegetables should cover most of your plate, while your side dish of meat should cover only a quarter of the surface area. A piece of cooked meat around the size of a pack of cards counts as three servings. Aim for no more than six servings of lean meat in a day; poultry and fish are two healthy options.
Nuts are small but powerful nutritional storehouses. Most nuts serve as sources of magnesium, potassium and protein. In addition, nuts contain fiber and phytochemicals, special compounds that can protect against cancers and cardiovascular disease. And some nuts – walnuts, for example – contain good fats, like the brain-friendly omega-3 fatty acids. If these tasty bite-sized snacks seem too good to be true, they are. Nuts are high in calories, so limit your servings to no more than four or five a week. Following the DASH diet guidelines, a single serving is equal to two tablespoons of peanut butter or 1/3 cup of whole nuts.
Contrary to popular belief, fats are an important part of any diet. Healthy fats help your body absorb all of the essential vitamins you consume. Fats only become problematic when you overindulge. When following the DASH diet, only 30 percent of your daily calories should come from fats; this equals two or three servings a day. A single serving can be one teaspoon of soft margarine or two tablespoons of salad dressing. Try to eat only heart-healthy, unsaturated fats. Avoid trans fats and saturated fats wherever possible. Saturated fat is the silent saboteur in most diets – it can dramatically increase blood pressure. No more than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat.
Anyone craving a sweet treat after dinner is in luck – you can still eat dessert on the DASH diet. Just remember that dessert should be a small indulgence, not a main course of the dinner meal. Try to have dessert no more than five times a week. On the DASH diet, one tablespoon of sugar or ½ cup of sorbet is considered a single serving. To keep your dessert diet-friendly, stick to fat-free or low-fat sweets. Dark chocolate is a good choice; it contains a substance known to lower blood pressure.
The foods allowed on the DASH diet are naturally low in sodium. But by following a few extra precautions, you can further reduce your sodium intake. Use fresh or frozen vegetables over canned, since most canned varieties contain excessive amounts of salt. When buying canned and processed foods, look for low-sodium or sodium-free varieties. Always read the nutritional labels on the food items you buy; low-fat and low-sodium foods may still have unacceptable levels of sodium. And don’t keep the salt shaker out on the table. Instead, flavor your dishes with spices and herbs.
Starting a new diet can be hard. It takes patience and perseverance to overhaul your old eating habits. Speak with your doctor or dietician for ways to incorporate healthier foods into your daily menu. Search for DASH recipes online and in cookbooks. Head straight for the fruits and vegetables when you first enter the grocery store. Remove temptation from your life by emptying all of your kitchen cupboards of trans fat-laden cookies and cakes. With a little bit of effort, you can lower your blood pressure through diet alone. And the final reward – a healthy and long life – will be worth all the hard work.