Of course, medications and exercise can help lower it. But diet can equal drugs at controlling blood pressure, says Lawrence Appel, M.D., a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. In a landmark 1997 study, he found that a special DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet reduced high blood pressure an average 11.4 points (in the systolic, upper number) and 5.5 points (in the diastolic, lower number).
Since then the DASH diet has become the best-tested, most successful eating plan to prevent and reduce high blood pressure. Eating this way also lowers artery-clogging cholesterol and homocysteine, promotes bone mass, cuts weight and may help prevent cancer.
The diet calls for more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. It prescribes less fat (especially saturated animal fat), red meat, sweets and sugary beverages. The benefits are greatest when you also restrict sodium and alcohol.
It's not entirely clear why eating the DASH way lowers blood pressure quickly (often within two weeks) and dramatically. Theories: "The DASH diet acts as a natural diuretic," says new Japanese research. Appel says high potassium and low sodium in fruits and vegetables help regulate blood pressure. Weight loss is well-known to lower blood pressure: In a new study, DASH dieters lost an average 13 pounds in six months; the percentage of those with high blood pressure fell from 37% to 12%. These recommended amounts are for a person who eats 2,000 calories a day.
- Grains and grain products (7 to 8 daily servings): 1 slice whole-wheat bread, 1/2 bagel, 1/2 cup oatmeal, 1 ounce unsalted pretzels
- Vegetables (4 to 5 daily servings): 1/2 cup tomatoes, potatoes, carrots
- Fruits(4 to 5 daily servings): 1 medium banana, orange, apple; 1/2 cup grapes, melon, berries
- Dairy products(2 to 3 daily servings): 1 cup fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt; 1 1/2 ounces fat-free or low-fat cheese
- Meats, poultry, fish(2 daily servings or fewer): 3 ounces lean, not fried; poultry is skinless
- Fat and oils(2 to 3 daily servings): 1 tsp. soft margarine, or olive or canola oil; 1 Tb. low-fat mayo; 2 Tbs. light salad dressing
- Nuts, seeds, dried beans(4 to 5 servings a week): 1/3 cup almonds, walnuts, peanuts; 1/2 cup dried beans, lentils
- Sweets(5 servings a week): 1Tb. sugar, jelly or jam; 1/2 cup sorbet
For best results, cut sodium, too
In one test, DASH dieters who cut sodium to 1,500 milligrams daily (2/3 tsp. salt from all sources) had the greatest reduction in blood pressure. Many Americans eat three times that much sodium.
Low-salt tactics include:
- Use spices, not salt, to flavor foods.
- Rinse canned foods, such as tuna and beans, to remove some sodium.
- Buy fresh, plain frozen or no-salt-added canned vegetables. Regular canned tomatoes have 10 times more sodium than no-salt-added tomatoes.
- Restrict cured meats (bacon, ham), foods in brine (pickles, olives) and condiments (MSG, soy sauce, mustard, ketchup).
- Cook rice, pasta and cereals without salt.
- Cut back on highly salted canned soup, frozen dinners and packaged mixes.
Copyright 2004 Jean Carper. Printed first in USA Weekend. All rights reserved.
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