Better heart health in eight weeks? Double down on fruits and veggies

Two decades ago, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) study tested the effects of three different diets on almost 500 participants over eight weeks. The first diet was a typical American diet, relatively low in fruits and vegetables (3.5 servings daily) and high in junk foods and sweets. The second offered more fruits and vegetables (8.5 servings daily) as well as seeds, nuts, and beans, and not many sweets. The third was the very healthy DASH diet, rich in fruits and vegetables (9.5 servings daily), beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, and barely any sweets. Participants truly stuck to each diet plan: All meals were provided by the researchers, with one meal per day eaten at the study center and the rest provided in coolers for take-home. All diets had the same amount of sodium (salt) and calories.

What did the original DASH study find?

After only two weeks, both the more-fruits-and-vegetables diet and the DASH diet significantly lowered blood pressure! This healthy blood pressure effect lasted for the whole eight-week study. Most importantly, it didn’t occur due to any differences in sodium intake or weight loss among the participants in all three diet groups.

Further, the study highlighted a remarkable effect on participants following the DASH diet. Among those with a diagnosis of high blood pressure, systolic blood pressure (the top number) dropped by 11.4 points, and diastolic blood pressure (the lower number) by 5.5 points. Basically, the DASH diet was more effective than a lot of blood pressure medications. Who wants to take a pill when you can simply eat healthier, which will provide plenty of other benefits? For example, diets higher in fruits and vegetables are associated with lower risk for all sorts of cardiovascular disease, like heart attacks and strokes.

What does the new data tell us about heart benefits?

Researchers eager to learn more about the heart benefits recently took a second look at data collected in the original study. Using blood samples from the original study participants in all three diet groups, they ran newer tests that can detect levels of heart strain, heart muscle injury, and total body inflammation. They found that both the more-fruits-and-vegetables diet and the DASH diet significantly lowered levels of heart strain and heart muscle injury, after just eight weeks. Total body inflammation levels were not significantly different, but scientists hypothesize that inflammation — which is linked to weight — would decrease with ongoing healthy eating and the inevitable weight loss that follows. This has been shown in many other studies.

The takeaway

The benefits of eating even slightly more fruits and vegetables can be seen in as little as two to eight weeks: significantly lower blood pressure, a measurably lower strain on the heart, and decreased heart muscle damage. Here is an important point: You can’t see these changes with your eyes. Blood pressure measurements and blood tests that find markers of heart strain and damage can show invisible changes critically important to our health, that can later lead to a heart attack, aortic aneurysm, stroke, peripheral artery disease, even dementia. A healthy cardiovascular system, the network of arteries connected to our hearts, keeps our bodies functioning well.

What it is not about: The numbers on the scale. The overall goal of a healthy diet should not be only about weight loss. If it is, then all of the other benefits are missed. A healthy diet and lifestyle will lead to healthy weight loss, which is great, but if that’s the only goal, then folks end up disappointed and disillusioned. Focus instead on eating healthy to be healthy, and take the focus off of the scale.

So how do we eat more like the DASH diet? You can find more information at the American Heart Association and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Nutrition Source. But basically, it’s about working in more fruits, veggies, beans and legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, and avoiding processed foods, red meats, snacks, and sweets.

Tips from a pro

  • Health-ify breakfast. Instead of a bowl of cereal or a bagel for breakfast (which are processed foods), have plain low-fat yogurt and a big serving of thawed berries with a sprinkling of nuts. It’s my favorite healthy breakfast! Do you prefer not to eat dairy? Feel like you need some whole grains in your breakfast? Great, try my no-added-sugar vegan granola. Need eggs for breakfast? Check out these other breakfast ideas, including a veggie-heavy frittata. You do you. Make your healthy breakfast out of foods you enjoy eating that are available to you and that also happen to be good for you. There are lots of options.
  • Always have a fruit or a vegetable with your snack. Hangry in the late afternoons? Have a handful of nuts and a banana, or a tablespoon of peanut butter and an apple, or a cup of hummus and a bunch of carrots, or even one of my faves, a couple of squares of very dark chocolate and an orange. Every snack will be healthier (and more filling) if it includes fiber-rich fruits and veggies.
  • Sneak more veggies into your main meals. Have frozen chopped spinach or kale handy to add to soups and stews, adding fiber and plant nutrients to your usual recipe. Add another veggie side to your barbecue, like sweet onions and colorful peppers sliced thin and sautéed in a grill pan on your grill.

Comments:

  1. B W Robinson

    looks like a plant full diet wins again, or what’s called a ‘Plant Based Whole Foods Diet’ is best.
    Interestingly I’ve read a few studies pointing to animal proteins being a possible cause of inflammation of the endothelial cells lining the blood vessels.

    The hypothesis was the immune response is thought to be seeing these proteins as foreign bodies (which literally they are) and mistakingly attacking the endothelial cells with similar protein structures. as humans are animals too.

    Even more interesting, was I read a pharmaceutical company has a drug trial going that is aimed at damping this immune response to animal proteins and endothelial inflammation. Their initial findings showed a significant drop in endothelial inflammation.

    So getting back to are humans meant to be eating the amount of meat we do, I look at the intestinal tract of the gorilla which has a very similar length and anatomy to humans. They eat a full plant diet. apart from the random insect. They have huge canine teeth, but it turns out they use them for tearing fibrous plant materials. Their bite, incisors and molars are very similar to humans too.

    Also I wonder if the advent of the domestic fridge significantly increased meat consumption, because my Irish mother said they rarely ate meat when growing up because they didn’t have suitable cold storage. I’d like to see a study showing if there is a correlation between Coronary vascular disease and the advent of the domestic fridge in different parts of the world. From memory the US got domestic fridges well before the UK and elsewhere.

  2. NEIL J McCARTHY

    I have also lowered by blood pressure mrdication from 40 to 10 mg lisinipril with a low carb diet. Thhe common element appears to be the elimination of sugar and junk carbs as with the two succesful diets you mentioned, not elimination of red meat, a rich source of nutrition.

  3. Anonymous

    Can you elaborate on why red meats should be avoided?

    • B W Robinson

      Check out my comment as I kind of explained it there. Basically there’s a hypothesis that animal proteins are similar to human proteins so an immune attack on them also mistakenly attack the endothelial cells lining the blood vessels.

      As for red meat, it could also be the heme iron that is too much for the body to handle. I’ve read multiple studies suggesting it’s heme iron linked to colon cancer. However there’s studies showing the microbiome is significantly different between non-meat eaters and meat eaters, including red meat. Some of those microbes produce toxic byproducts, one in particular produces ’TMAO’ which is linked too cardiovascular disease. Interestingly TMAO nor that microbe is not found in vegans (if it’s there it’s in very low numbers). So that could be another reason why.

      These rogue microbe lives off L-Carnitine and/or Choline which is in much higher amounts in animal products. So the balance of a Western diet is significantly out, compared to those in countries that eat mostly a plant diet and have low cardiovascular disease and cancer rates. I’m unsure where the threshold is on if there is a minimum amount of safe meat intake. But I’d say it’s very low

  4. Soroor

    I am surprised by the healthy idea of a bowl of yogurt for breakfast. That is a super low calorie breakfast that is no way filling for everyone. Maybe for a child it is enough. If an uninitiated person follows this suggestion and they get hungry after 1 hour they will feel like a failure and that is sad. I am a slim 5′ 4″ woman and would not be able to get through the morning with this yogurt bowl. I suggest that you do eat the yogurt bowl as well as a piece of wholewheat bread with a little butter or a boiled egg or some peanut butter. If you are still hungry have a half of an apple, too and so on. Eat until you are not hungry.
    The problem with these tiny breakfasts is that they cause early hunger pangs before lunch and lead the person to eat some unhealthy snack that is easily available.
    The frittata idea is good but only for the weekends when one has time.

    • Anonymous

      I agree that the bowl of yogurt with fruit is NOT a sufficient breakfast and would result in a person grabbing a bagel, a doughnut, or some other such non-healthy food mid-morning. I eat steel-cut oats for breakfast AND a 6 oz. jar of my homemade yogurt with a couple of tsp. of homemade maple granola (low in fat) on top. That takes me through the morning nicely.

    • Brandi

      Yogurt is an excellent breakfast if it’s whole milk yogurt. Lowfat products are not whole foods.

  5. Ia

    Good article

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