According to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, women who maintain diets that are like the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet can reduce their risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. The DASH diet suggests a low consumption of animal protein, moderate intake of low-fat dairy products, and high intake of plant proteins, fruits, and vegetables.

Designed to stop hypertension (high blood pressure), the DASH diet has previously been shown to reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels – top and bottom numbers, respectively – in people with high or normal blood pressure. The authors also note that this blood pressure reducing diet has been linked to a reduction in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), commonly called “bad” cholesterol. National dietary guidelines also use the DASH diet as an example when recommending healthy eating patterns.

To further examine the association between the diet and cardiovascular health, Teresa T. Fung, Sc.D. (Simmons College, Boston) and colleagues analyzed 88,517 female nurses, age 34 to 59, who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study. None of the women had cardiovascular disease or diabetes in 1980. On seven occasions throughout the 1980 through 2004 time period, participants in the study detailed the types of foods they ate frequently over the past year. The researchers used eight food and nutrient components from these data to develop a DASH score for each woman. If women ate more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes and did not stray far from the suggested amounts of low-fat dairy products, then their DASH scores increased. As participants ate more red and processed meats, sweetened beverages, and sodium, their scores decreased.

After 24 years of follow-up data were recorded, the researchers found that 2,129 women had a non-fatal heart attack, 976 died of coronary heart disease, and 2,317 had strokes. Women with higher DASH scores were found to have a reduced risk for heart disease and stroke. The researchers create subgroups according to DASH scores and found that compared to women in the lowest quintile (20%) of DASH scores, women in the upper quintile (those who had diets that most resembled the DASH diets) were 24% less likely to have coronary heart disease (fatal or non-fatal) and 18% less likely to suffer from stroke.

The researchers also had access to blood samples for some of the women. In this subgroup, they found higher DASH scores to be linked to lower levels of C-reactive protein and interleukin 6 – two markers of inflammation that have been associated with the risk of heart disease.

“Nevertheless, our results need to be replicated in other populations. Because other diet indexes such as the Alternate Healthy Eating Index and Mediterranean Diet Score have also been strongly associated with lower risk of CVD, the value of the DASH score as a predictor of CHD and stroke should be measured against other indexes. Although members of this cohort are middle-aged nurses, we expect the identified associations should be generalizable to middle-aged American women because the biological effects of dietary patterns should be the same for them,” conclude the authors.

Adherence to a DASH-Style Diet and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease and Stroke in Women
Teresa T. Fung, ScD; Stephanie E. Chiuve, ScD; Marjorie L. McCullough, ScD; Kathryn M. Rexrode, MD; Giancarlo Logroscino, MD, PhD; Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD
Archives of Internal Medicine
(2008). 168[7]: 713 – 720.
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Written by: Peter M Crosta