Skip to content

Of course, we all know that we should eat healthier for our heart, but what exactly is a heart-healthy diet?

Well, it’s DASH.

Researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are finally providing some heart-healthy diet specifics. Their study found that both the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, cut heart disease risk scores by about 10 percent over eight weeks.

The researchers said that focusing on fruits and vegetables can do a satisfactory job. Still, the DASH diet offers even more benefits for women and Black adults, especially when compared to a Western diet. The typical Western diet contains a nominal amount of fruits and vegetables and lots of fat and sodium. The DASH diet is all about lowering blood pressure and features tons of foods rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

Research like this is essential because cardiovascular disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States, killing about 697,000 people in the United States annually. Shockingly, one person dies every 34 seconds from it. Unfortunately, although it’s common knowledge that healthy eating help deters cardiovascular risk factors like hypertension and high cholesterol levels, there’s little conclusive research indicative of one specific diet for heart-conscious eaters.

“While physicians and patients rely on the extensive data available when choosing appropriate pharmacologic therapy to prevent atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, there’s limited evidence to inform expectations for risk reductions from established lifestyle interventions,” says corresponding study author Stephen P. Juraschek, MD, Ph.D., a clinician-researcher in the Department of Medicine at BIDMC, in a media release. “Our study suggests that the benefits associated with these diets may vary by sex and race. While a diet rich in fruits and vegetables produced reductions in risk for women and Black participants, the effect with the DASH diet was twice as large in women and four times as large in Black adults.”

The study authors analyzed a dataset of 459 adults between the ages of 22 and 75 who participated in the original DASH trial between 1994 and 1996 to determine the influence of different diets on an individual’s risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. That group included roughly 50 percent of women and African Americans. They followed one of three diets for eight weeks. 

The control diet was a typical Western diet, consisting of lots of total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. The fruit and veggie diet provided more produce but did not otherwise significantly differ from the control diet. Finally, the DASH diet provided more fruit and vegetables but emphasized more whole grains, lean proteins, nuts, and low-fat dairy, all while cutting down on fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sugar.

That original DASH project, first published in 1997, demonstrated that among adults with elevated blood pressure and hypertension, the DASH diet not only reduced systolic blood pressure but also helped lower HDL cholesterol levels compared to the control diet. In addition, the fruit and vegetable diet was also able to reduce systolic blood pressure, albeit to a lesser degree, and improve HDL cholesterol levels.

When the research team compared datasets, they cited that the DASH and fruit and vegetable diets lowered participants’ 10-year risk for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease by roughly 10 percent overall. However, the effect was not consistent across all demographics; the DASH approach to eating lowered 10-year risk scores among women by nearly 13 percent, compared to just over six percent for men. Additionally, the DASH diet reduced the 10-year risk score by close to 14 percent among Black adults, as opposed to just three percent among non-Black adults.

Author Sun Young Jeong, MD, MPH, an internal medicine resident at BIDMC, explains,

“The findings could have major implications for clinical practitioners and policymakers alike. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women, and hypertension is also more strongly linked with heart failure and death in women than men. We also know women are less likely to receive risk factor modification therapies, such as statins, so our finding that DASH may be more efficacious among women are relevant for lifestyle counseling in this group.”

Dr. Juraschek added, “Similarly, disparities in access to healthy foods has been a major focus of policy efforts to promote higher intake of fruits and vegetables among Black adults. Our study suggests that the DASH dietary pattern may offer Black adults more prevention benefits than the emphasis on fruits and vegetables alone. This is particularly relevant as dietary pattern has been identified as one of the most important mediators of hypertension risk among Black adults.”

You can find the study in The American Journal of Cardiology if you care for a leisurely read.