The DASH Diet for a Healthy Heart
Eat sensibly to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce your risk of heart disease
by Esther Sung
I f taking better care of your heart is a health goal, you’ll want to consider trying the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension Diet, better known as the DASH Diet. Developed in 1998, the DASH Diet isn’t the sexy diet du jour, but the recent publication of Marla Heller’s The Dash Diet Action Plan: Proven to Lower Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Without Medication (Grand Central/Hachette) is shining a new spotlight on to this sensible, commonsense approach to getting healthy. Heller, a registered dietitian, is a longtime advocate of the DASH Diet, and in the book she lays out the diet’s comprehensive principles in a simple, easy-to-implement way. If you’re a food lover and want to lower your blood pressure, read on for some key eating and cooking tips from Heller’s DASH Diet book, plus healthy recipes to try.
Heller hopes to help people realize that “there is more to heart health than a low-sodium diet.” She challenges people to eat more colorful fruits and vegetables, which “add lots of flavor and visual interest”; opt for foods that are nonstarchy carbohydrates, like dark, leafy greens and lean meats; and embrace heart-healthy unsaturated fats, such as those found in fish, nuts, and certain vegetables, like olives and avocado.
The DASH Diet can also help anyone with hypertension who has also been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome: The diet’s focus on increasing fiber and lean protein intake while decreasing starchy, refined carbohydrates can help regulate insulin production. And while Heller advises that everyone should check with their physician before embarking on the diet, it is encouraging to hear that some of her clients on the DASH diet have reduced—and even completely stopped—their medications.
DASH Diet Mains
DASH Diet S >
DASH Diet Snacks & Desserts
Marla Heller’s Tips:
Just eating more fruits and vegetables isn’t enough. Heller emphasizes the importance of low-fat dairy in a heart-healthy diet, citing a recent study in which a test group that consumed extra fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy had lower blood pressure than a control group at the end of the study. If cow’s milk isn’t an option for you, look to alternatives such as goat’s milk and soy milk.
“There is no place for pastries and sweets in this diet,” says Heller. “You really have to save it for a special occasion.” But if your craving for sweets can’t be denied, especially if you already have hypertension or diabetes, Heller recommends using aspartame or stevia, since neither will overwork the pancreas.
- Focus on Reducing Salt
It’s no secret that over time too much sodium can raise your blood pressure, which makes your heart and the rest of the cardiovascular system have to work harder. Taking simple steps to reduce sodium—such as limiting canned or processed foods and condiments—can help make the transition easier. Heller also suggests stocking up on spices and herbs, which boost flavor in healthier ways.
Starting a low-sodium diet is often the first plan of action for anyone battling hypertension. But as Heller points out, studies show that to get the most benefit from a low-sodium diet, you have to “increase calcium, potassium, and magnesium from foods, as opposed to from supplements.” Adding fresh foods that are high in these particular nutrients, such as broccoli, almonds, and brown rice, will help you stay on track.
The typical American diet is heavy on carbs, saturated fats, and processed foods, so if your diet needs a complete overhaul, Heller suggests trying cuisines that emphasize more fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as other sources of protein and flavors. Indian and Southeast Asian dishes are immensely flavorful and even vegetarian-friendly. Or look to Mediterranean-based recipes for a tasty way to eat more seafood and less fat. Experimenting with other cuisines means more options—always a plus when you’re feeling trapped or tired by your current food choices.