What is the DASH diet and is it good for you?

High blood pressure – otherwise known as hypertension – affects over one billion people worldwide, occurring in one in four adults. 

According to the World Heart Federation, it is the number one risk factor for death in the world.

Diet is also a major factor in the development of high blood pressure, and scientists have created a specific strategy thought to combat the issue called the DASH diet.

What is the DASH diet and how might it help? Let us explain…

But first of all, what is blood pressure?

Is it the pressure of the blood in our arteries (the vessels that carry blood from the heart to the brain and over our bodies.) A certain amount of pressure is needed to get the blood flowing through the body, according to the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

While blood pressure goes up and down during the day and night – and when you move – consistently high pressure is not good. When your blood pressure is high, it means your heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body.

If ignored, it can lead to heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, heart failure, problems with your sight and vascular dementia, the BHF states on its website.

Arteries are typically stretchy to cope with changes in blood pressure, but if you have consistently high pressure, they can become stiff and narrow – this makes it easier for fatty material to clog them up.

Causes of high blood pressure

While there may not always be an explanation, diet, lifestyle and medical conditions are thought to play a part.

The BHF states that drinking too much alcohol, smoking, being overweight, not doing enough exercise and eating too much salt can all increase blood pressure.

So what can be done to treat or prevent high blood pressure?

That’s where Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, comes in.

‘it is a specific eating plan created to lower and manage high blood pressure,’ superintendent pharmacist Abbas Kanani tells Metro.co.uk.

‘It is designed to increase the consumption of foods rich in nutrients like calcium, potassium, and magnesium, which are all proven to lower blood pressure, whilst reducing intake of salt, saturated and trans fats. 

‘It can also help people maintain a healthy weight which reduces the risk of high blood pressure developing.’

The DASH diet places importance on eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, according to Healthline, and was developed after scientists found that people who followed a plant-based diet were less likely to have high blood pressure.

The diet is specifically low in red meat, added sugars and salt.

‘The low-fat diet is also full of whole-grain foods, fish, lean poultry, fruits and vegetables which helps to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of developing serious health issues such as coronary heart disease, stroke and kidney failure,’ Abbas adds.

‘It can also be beneficial to patients with osteoporosis, some cancers, and lower risk of kidney stones.’

A major benefit of this diet is the reduced sodium content, with the DASH programme advising people to have no more than one teaspoon of salt per day.

‘If your diet is very poor, lacking in fruit, vegetables and fibre, then DASH is likely to be an improvement on what you’re currently eating,’ says Pauline Cox, a Functional Nutritionist, Author, co-founder of Sow & Arrow and Nutritional Advisor to Wiley’s Finest sustainable supplements.

Other health benefits, according to Healthline:

  • Decreases cancer risk
  • Lowers metabolic syndrome risk
  • Lowers diabetes risk
  • Reduces heart disease risk

Is the DASH diet good for you?

While the diet has proven to be beneficial for some, nutritionists and health experts advise people to be cautious when starting the diet.

‘If you are insulin resistant or pre-diabetic, then the higher carbohydrate intake of DASH may not be as suitable for you,’ warns Pauline. 

‘When an individual has insulin resistance, their ability to mop up blood glucose from the bloodstream following a meal and usher into the cells for fuel is reduced. 

‘This results in raising blood glucose levels, followed by a rise in insulin levels. Over time, chronically elevated insulin has a negative impact on the cells and tissues of the body, particularly the cardiovascular system.

‘When blood vessels are exposed to insulin in small amounts, there is a vasodilating effect, a relaxation of the blood vessels. 

‘However, when the blood vessels are exposed to chronically elevated levels of insulin, as with insulin resistance, the blood vessels become restricted, causing an increase in blood pressure.’

Pauline suggests implementing foods that have less of an impact on blood glucose levels.

‘People with high-normal or elevated serum potassium and phosphorus values are advised not to follow the DASH diet because of the increased intake of potassium foods,’ adds Abbas. ‘Some may also experience gas and bloating in the beginning due to the high fibre content of plant foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.’

It’s also not the most practical diet if you don’t have time to make meals from scratch, and with rising costs, getting regular fresh produce won’t be an option for many people.

‘Reducing your salt intake can be challenging to maintain on a long-term basis, especially for busy lifestyles,’ says Abbas. 

‘Convivence foods such as ready meals and takeaways tend to contain high amounts of salts and sugars and are usually cheaper and easier to prepare. 

‘It can also be expensive to maintain because most of the food groups required for the diet generally cost more such as fresh fish, vegetables and fruit.’

Abbas also warns about the excessive planning and food tracking that the diet involves, particularly for people with disordered eating habits or eating disorders.

‘In order to track salt intake, people with pre-existing eating disorders may find it challenging to calorie count on a daily basis. The diet requires advanced planning of daily meals based on the allowed servings.’

Certified nutritionist Maher Elusini says that the reduction of ‘fat’ in the diet can also be a downside to DASH.

‘It is so unfortunate that fat receives such a stigmatized reputation, and we as a society are so misinformed about it,’ Maher explains.

‘Macroscopically, sufficient fat intake is the most critical factor because it is an excellent source of energy and serves as a structural building block for the body, as well as an aid in the absorption of nutrients and vitamins.’

As well as this, Maher says that the drop in salt intake can create a void in the body that cannot be easily filled. 

‘Your body relies on sodium to facilitate nerve impulses, relax muscles, and maintain fluid and mineral balance,’ they add.

For people wanting to go on this diet, Maher suggests assessing your current eating habits and lifestyle. 

‘Why do you want to go on the diet in the first place?’ they add. ‘And since the DASH diet restricts foods that have saturated fat, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and important electrolytes like sodium, how will you provide your body with the missing link that is essential for a holistic, healthy lifestyle?

‘Is it going to be performed under the supervision of a medical professional or on your own?

‘Ultimately, my advice is to listen carefully to your body and seek medical counsel. Stick to a diet that nourishes your organs, gives you energy, vitality, and most importantly, gives you a sense of well-being.’

Whilst the DASH diet could be useful on the spectrum of improving dietary habits, Pauline adds that it may not be the most effective overall diet.

If you have high blood pressure and are thinking about starting the DASH diet, we recommend seeking professional medical help. 

Changing your diet can have huge health impacts, and if you also have other underlying conditions, then it is best to speak with a dietician or doctor who can give you specific advice regarding your situation.

What are some DASH diet recipes?

The DASH diet is all about eating plenty of fruit and veg, whole grains, fish, and lean meats – so if you’re choosing recipes with those items, you’re on the right track.

Some DASH diet recipes include:

Breakfasts:

  • Avocado and black bean eggs
  • Avocado on toast with smoked salmon and an egg
  • Veggie omelette
  • Yoghurt with fruit and granola
  • Berry almond smoothie bowl
  • Peanut butter overnight oats

Lunches and dinners:

  • Chicken with crushed harissa chickpeas
  • Spanish-style herby cod and crispy chorizo stew
  • Baharat roasted root veg and aubergine
  • Feta and kale loaded sweet potato
  • Baked cod with lemon and capers
  • Butter bean and mushroom stew
  • Beef stroganoff
  • Smoked mackerell linguine with zingy salad
  • Slow-cooker chicken and chickpea soup
  • Roasted salmon with smoky chickpeas and greens
  • Prawns puttanesca
  • Crispy prawn tacos with coriander mayo
  • Griddled glazed vegetable kebabs
  • Mimi’s lentil medley

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