New blood pressure guidelines show that hypertension is a problem for tens of millions of Americans. And a huge clinical trial recently showed that nearly everyone with high blood pressure should be taking diuretic drugs -- "water pills."
These are relatively safe drugs, but they do have side effects. Now researchers find that the DASH diet -- created to fight high blood pressure -- works just like water pills. One member of the study team is Frank M. Sacks, MD, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health. Sacks is one of the inventors of Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension -- the DASH diet.
Sacks tells WebMD that like water pills, the DASH diet speeds the rate at which a person gets rid of excess sodium. If they followed a low-salt version of the DASH diet, he says, many people could stop taking the drugs.
"There are people who can avoid any hypertensive drug use," Sacks tells WebMD. "If people eat the DASH diet with low salt intake -- especially older people -- their blood pressure goes down 15 points. That is just fine and dandy. That is what most people need to reach their goal."
What's the DASH diet? It's based on 2,000 calories a day. It calls for:
- 4-5 servings of vegetables a day
- 4-5 servings of fruit each day
- 7-8 servings of grains or grain products a day
- 2-3 servings of low- or nonfat dairy products a day
- No more than two 3-ounce servings of lean meat, poultry, or fish in any day
- 2-3 tablespoons of fats and oils a day (27% of calories as fat, including fat already in other foods)
The DASH diet is really, really good for you. It's heart healthy. It's low fat, so you'll stay trim. It can also cut your risk of getting cancer, says Maureen Gardner, RD, a clinical dietitian at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla.
For most of us, of course, there is a drawback.
"It would be difficult for the average person to follow this if he or she now is eating the average American diet," Gardner admits. "But people can learn to do the DASH diet. They could start small and make gradual changes. Try to include a fruit at every meal and eat fruits for snacks instead of candy. Treat meat as a condiment to go with your food, not as the focus of every meal."
Sacks says he's getting pretty good at following his own advice. He's been on the low-salt DASH diet himself. But he says that even if you can't go this far, you can still help your heart.
"It takes a lot of effort to eat the full DASH diet and to cut salt intake to very low levels," he says. "The idea here is that many people will do some of both and get the benefits."
The new DASH findings appear in the July 2003 issue of Hypertension, a journal of the American Heart Association.