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Heart Smart Living
Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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Low Fat Dairy Foods may Reduce Stroke Risk

Way back in 1997, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a landmark study evaluating the effects of diet on blood pressure. Researchers tested the impact of a diet known as the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) which included liberal amounts of fruits and vegetables, two to three servings of low-fat dairy products, and reduced amounts of saturated fats (found in meat and high fat dairy products), total fat, and cholesterol. For those with hypertension (high blood pressure), this diet reduced systolic blood pressure by more than 11 points and diastolic pressure by close to 6 points. A subsequent study adding in salt restrictions lowered blood pressure even more.

Hypertension is one of the major contributors to stroke, and the leading cause of hemorrhagic stroke, in which blood vessels in the brain rupture. When a stroke occurs, blood flow to the brain is compromised, leading to injury and death of brain cells. This can result in permanent disability, including loss of mental function, speech disturbances, and partial paralysis. Many people fear strokes more than heart attacks. As the daughter of two stroke victims, I can testify to the devastating effects that strokes can have.

Since low fat dairy products are one of the important components of the DASH diet, researchers in Sweden decided to see if consumption of dairy foods is connected to stroke risk. (Swedish people tend to eat more dairy foods than most, making them a good population to study.) The 10 year study published in the April 19, 2012 edition of the journal Stroke tracked the health of nearly 75,000 men and women who completed a food questionnaire at baseline, and who were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer at the onset of the study.

At the end of the study, when corrected for other health issues, those whose diet included the most low-fat dairy foods were 12 percent less likely to have suffered a stroke than those who avoided these foods, while full-fat dairy foods did not appear to be protective. The benefit held whether or not high blood pressure was present.

It’s easy to get low-fat dairy foods into your diet. Skim and low-fat milk are simple to add to your morning bowl of cereal. For lunch, one of my favorite choices is rich-tasting Greek yogurt, which is also a terrific source of protein. Avoid the highly sweetened varieties, and look for products like Fage which allow you to blend in as much or as little fruit mix as you want. Low fat string cheese is another quick and easy snack.

If you have trouble digesting dairy foods, consider using a product like Lactaid, or check with your doctor to see if there may be other options to help you. If you have concerns about growth hormones used in the dairy and meat industry, look for products labeled “organic” or “rBGH-free”. You can find out more about this issue at SustainableTable.org.

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Tags: Diet and Heart Health

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About the Author


Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.