The Dash to reduce blood pressure
A diet, such as the DASH diet, which specifically targets High Blood Pressure sounds very appealing. So I decided to take a closer look at what the Dash diet has to offer and break it down some more by its food groups.
Grains have been given a bad rap recently, and there is quite the debate as to whether in fact they have a place in our diets period. Arguments against the use of grains tend to orientate themselves along the lines that early humans did not consume grains, and so the body cannot digest them properly which can lead to health problems, ranging from bowel discomfort, to bloating and weight gain.
In addition the issue of gluten intolerance reactions has also been flagged as a major problem for many people, and in its most extreme form it causes a major autoimmune response, commonly known as Celiac’s disease. Other concerns about grains are that they lead to insulin spikes which can result in obesity and diabetes. Also, that they can leach calcium from the bones due to the effect of the Phytic Acid contained in them. This latter concern was not however proven in a study which examined the relationship between grain consumption and osteoporosis.
On the flip side whole grains in particular are seen as beneficial because of the fibre and nutrients they contain which are important in a balanced diet. Also there is research which shows that a whole grain enriched diet lowers the risk of developing diabetes, cardiac disease, bowel cancer and high blood pressure. Finally there is evidence that a diet rich in whole grains can lead to the maintenance of a healthier weight.
My feeling on this subject is that there is ample research conducted by established and respected medical and educational institutions (Harvard School of Public Health, Mayo Clinic, for example) which supports the notion that whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet. By whole grains it is vital to remember that by definition whole grain encompasses all parts of the grain kernel, such as the bran, germ and endosperm. And please note that whole grain is not at all the same as 100% wheat or multi-grain, as shown on some food product labels.
FRUITS & VEGETABLES
When choosing vegetables and fruits remember that some of these are already foods that naturally lower blood pressure, for example beets , celery and kiwi fruit. Leafy greens such as romaine lettuce, arugula, kale, turnip and spinach are rich in potassium, which has been shown to play an important role in helping to lower blood pressure. I find a good rule of thumb here is to eat vegetables and fruits of assorted colours to ensure the best availability of nutrients. A useful and comprehensive reference list of different coloured vegetables and fruits may be found here
What to choose? GMO/ Non-GMO/ORGANIC?
When it comes to choosing the quality of our vegetables and fruits, inevitably we have to confront the whole discussion around gmo foods, and organic vs non-gmo foods. As far as gmo is concerned I think many of us still have deep concerns about the potentially harmful nature of eating foods which are no longer natural, having been genetically modified.
So when we see non-gmo on the label we can breathe a sigh of relief and know that this is a natural product and therefore must be healthy for us… Right? Well, this is where is gets interesting. It turns out that non-gmo is quite different from organic.
Non-gmo on the label merely certifies that the food was not genetically modified. It does not tell the complete story about the chemicals and other treatments used during the growth and/or production process.
organic vs non gmo foods
This table puts this into perspective:
If we are concerned about the quality of the food we are ingesting - and I am sure those of us already trying to improve our health by using the DASH diet most certainly are - then it seems obvious that whenever possible we should be consuming organically farmed and certified fruits and vegetables. Going 100% organic can be an expensive proposition for some of us, however. So adopting a selective shopping strategy for organic versus non-organic fruits and vegetables may be the answer. The EWG (Environmental Working Group) released a list of “The Dirty Dozen” (most laden with pesticide) and “The Clean Fifteen” (least contaminated) fruits and veggies. Click here to find these lists!
DAIRY, LOW FAT OR NON-FAT
The inclusion of low fat or non-fat dairy into the diet serves two purposes:
Firstly by recommending low fat or non-fat dairy options, the Diet meets its goal of targeting saturated fat, cholesterol and calories. These have been shown to lead to weight gain and increase the risk factors for hypertension, heart disease and stroke.
Secondly, it recognizes that the availability of dairy products in the diet is important because they provide our bodies with important sources of protein, magnesium, calcium, vitamins A, B-complex, D, and E and folate. So the diet allows for the consumption of low fat and non-fat dairy. Sources of low fat dairy include skim milk, low fat cheeses, plain yogurts and cottage cheese.
Both Skim milk and low fat milk (1%) have been shown to have a beneficial effect on blood pressure.
The most significant finding from a Spanish study into the use of low-fat dairy and the reduction in the risk of hypertension was that only the calcium obtained from low fat dairy products was able to exert a positive effect on blood pressure. In the study of 5880 adults over a 2 year period, those drinking mainly low fat skim and reduced-fat milk were 54% less prone to develop high blood pressure. The Researchers believe that the caseins and whey (proteins) in low fat dairy may exert a similar action on blood pressure as some BP lowering drugs.
LEAN MEATS, POULTRY & FISH
Whilst the diet advocates sticking to poultry and fish for your main sources of meat protein, it does allow for a limited amount of red meat.
Here I think it is essential to assess the quality of the meat, poultry and fish sources.
For example, when choosing fish, you have the option of farmed raised fish vs wild fish: Wild fish, say salmon, is typically leaner and contains higher levels of Omega-3. Farmed fish has lower protein levels, less Omega 3 and more fats.
But there is a major advantage to choosing wild fish over farmed when you compare the food sources for each. Farmed fish are typically fed a diet of grain-grown crops which may be GMO and likely have been treated with pesticides. Wild fish however live on a diet of natural foods which they catch for themselves.
The final reason why I prefer wild over farmed is that farmed fish are prone to diseases and have to be given doses of antibiotics, the residues of which end up in the fish we consume. Wild fish on the other hand have the whole ocean to swim in and as a result stay relatively clear of diseases.
One other point of interest which I discovered in my research is that grass-fed meat, which would fit into the Diet’s guidelines, is a decidedly better choice than grain-fed meat. It is high in Omega-3 and actually in terms of nutrition more like fish. Grain-fed beef, or bison, on the other hand is high in Omega-6 which leads to inflammation and can actually result in higher blood pressure.
Four down and Three to go!!
In Part 3 I will conclude by covering the remaining 3 groups - nuts, seeds and dry beans - fats and oils and lastly sweets.