Anti-Hypertension DASH Diet Also Cuts Heart Disease 24%, Stroke 18%

EVEN IF you don't have high blood pressure, you might want to try the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan. New results from the Nurses' Health Study — based on an impressive 24 years of follow-up — show that women whose diets most closely resembled the DASH plan were 24% less likely to develop heart disease and 18% less likely to have a stroke.

Developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, DASH was based on two clinical studies that tested the effects on blood pressure of sodium and nutrients in food. The diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy foods while reducing sodium, saturated fat, total fat and cholesterol. DASH has been shown to reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, as well as unhealthy LDL cholesterol; despite its proven benefits, however, fewer than 20% of patients with high blood pressure follow the diet.

The latest research tracked 88,517 women, ages 34 to 59 at baseline, who did not have cardiovascular disease or diabetes in 1980. Seven times during the next 24 years, participants reported on their typical diets during the previous year. Those eating habits were assigned a score based on how closely the diets matched the DASH plan (see box). The women were then divided into five groups ranging from highest to lowest DASH scores. The roughly 15,000 women in the group with the highest DASH scores ate about twice as many vegetables, fruits and whole grains as those with the lowest scores.

From 1980 to 2004, researchers recorded 2,129 nonfatal heart attacks, 976 heart-disease deaths and 2,317 cases of stroke among the participants. The group with the highest DASH scores was significantly less likely to suffer heart disease or stroke than the women with the lowest DASH scores. In a subgroup of participants who provided blood samples, higher DASH scores were also associated with lower levels of C-reactive protein and interleukin 6. These compounds are markers of inflammation, which has been associated with heart-disease risk.

Lead researcher Teresa T. Fung, ScD, of Simmons College acknowledged that people without high blood pressure might think there's no reason to follow the DASH recommendations. But this new study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, suggests that even healthy people should adopt the DASH plan, she said.

Even though the study focused only on women, Fung added that it's likely men would see similar benefits in preventing heart disease and stroke. But Fung and colleagues said further research should test the DASH diet's effects in other populations, as well as comparing the DASH plan with other diets shown to fight heart disease, such as the so-called "Mediterranean diet."

TO LEARN MORE Archives of Internal Medicine, April 14, 2008; abstract at . Healthier Eating with DASH .

DASH-ing Steps
The latest Nurses' Health Study findings on the heart-disease and stroke benefits of the DASH eating plan scored participants' diets based on eight factors. You can use these same factors as a quick guide to improving your own diet:

PLUSES:
More fruits
More vegetables
More whole grains
More nuts and legumes
Low-fat dairy consumption (close to two to three daily servings)
MINUSES:
More red and processed meats
More sweetened beverages
More sodium
Then download the complete DASH plan for free at or order a print version for $3.50 by calling (301) 592-8573 or (240) 629-3255 (TTY) and requesting a free catalog with order form. The booklet includes sample recipes and a week's worth of menus.

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