DASH Dietary Pattern Supports Cardiovascular Health: New Study

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Originally devised to help hypertensive patients lower their blood pressure, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) dietary pattern includes relatively large amounts of plant-derived foods, moderate amounts of low-fat dairy foods, and low amounts of animal protein. A new study by Dr. Teresa Fung and colleagues (Arch Intern Med 2008; 168:713) indicates that women who adhere to such a dietary pattern may lower their risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke as well.

Approximately 88,000 middle-aged female nurses in the Harvard Nurses' Health Study completed food frequency questionnaires every two years for twenty-four years. Using data from these questionnaires, the researchers developed a "DASH score" to indicate how closely the women's diets adhered to the DASH diet pattern. The women's scores were divided into five groups or quintiles, depending on how well their reported intakes mimicked the DASH pattern. Those participants whose diets most resembled the DASH pattern (quintile five) were least likely to smoke and reported the highest level of physical activity.

Examining the data across all quintiles, the researchers found significant trends toward a decrease in total CHD, nonfatal CHD, fatal CHD, and stroke. The few women who were smokers and those who had high blood pressure appeared to benefit the most from being in the highest quintile, compared to nonsmokers and women with normal blood pressure, respectively. In addition, examination of a subgroup of the women found that a higher score was associated with a lower level of indices of inflammation -- which is thought to be involved with an increased risk of heart disease.

The authors of the study suggested that they expected the associations they identified to be "generalizable to middle-aged American women because the biological effects of dietary patterns should be the same for them."

Considering the frequent description of various foods and ingredients as "good" or "bad" in current health news, it is refreshing to see research that instead emphasizes a dietary pattern in an effort to connect diet and health outcomes.

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., is Director of Nutrition, American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).