A specially designed low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables may do much more than just combat high blood pressure, as originally intended. New research shows it can also reduce cholesterol levels and lower a persons overall heart-disease risk.
The study found overweight middle-aged men and women who followed the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet, known as the DASH diet, for eight weeks were able to reduce their cholesterol levels by an average of 13 mg/dL. Based on those results, researchers estimate that continuing to follow the diet long-term would reduce the patients cardiovascular risk by about 10%.
Previous studies have shown that the DASH diet helps people with high blood pressure keep it under control, but this study shows it may also be a powerful way for people at risk for heart disease to lower their risk through diet alone.
For the study, 436 participants who were overweight or obese, inactive and had high blood pressure consumed the DASH diet, a control diet based on the typical American diet or a diet increased in fruits and vegetables alone.
The DASH diet recommends double the number of servings (8-10) of fruits and vegetables than the average American eats and emphasizes lean meats such as chicken and fish and low- or non-fat dairy products.
Researchers found the DASH diet had an even greater effect on improving cholesterol profiles in men than women. Men reduced their LDL or "bad" cholesterol by an averages of 16.5 mg/dL while women, on average, experienced a reduction of only 5.4 mg/dL. Cholesterol reductions were insignificant on the fruit and vegetable diet.
In an editorial that accompanies the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, George Blackburn of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, cautions that following the DASH diet long-term may be too extreme of a behavior modification for many.
"Those who make small, incremental changes in their diet over time have the highest probability of success," writes Blackburn.
Although the DASH diet has been shown to provide a wealth of heart-healthy benefits, Blackburn says the challenge now is for researchers and food scientists to develop "a simple, modern diet as effective as the DASH diet."
But study author Eva Obarzanek, research nutritionist at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) says the DASH diet is not that hard to follow because it is not restrictive, like many weight-loss diets, and followers feel full because they actually eat a much larger volume of food.
"Youre reducing fats, so you have got those calories that can then use for your fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products," says Obarzanek. "There are very few sweets on the DASH diet, so every food has to count."
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