Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: The biggest loser

Heart Beat

The biggest loser

High blood pressure is a silent but destructive enemy that taxes the heart and can harm blood vessels, the brain, the kidneys, and the eyes. Keeping it in check is one of the best things you can do for your health, especially if you have heart disease or diabetes.

Most people turn to pills to manage their blood pressure. But changes in diet, exercise, and weight can help medications along, and sometimes even supplant them. The best-known diet for blood pressure control is the DASH diet, a rigorously tested eating plan devised by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Its key features include plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; several servings daily of low-fat dairy products; some fish, poultry, dried beans, nuts, and seeds; and minimal red meat, sweets, salt, and sugar-laden beverages.

For people who are overweight, adding weight loss and exercise improves the diet's effect. In a trial called ENCORE, volunteers on the DASH diet who exercised and lost weight reduced their systolic blood pressure (the top number of a blood pressure reading) an average of 13 points, compared with 5 points for the DASH diet–only group. The combination group also had better blood sugar levels and more flexible arteries than the diet-only group at the end of the 16-week trial (2009 American College of Cardiology meeting).

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