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The Mediterranean and DASH diets emphasize fish as well as vegetables and fruit. Getty Images
  • Researchers report that a traditional Southern diet of fried foods and processed meats can increase the risk of sudden cardiac arrest.
  • Experts say you can improve your heart health and lower your blood pressure by utilizing a DASH or Mediterranean diet that emphasizes fish, vegetables, and fruit.
  • Experts recommend anyone trying out one of these heart-healthy diets start by slowly making changes to their eating and lifestyle habits.

The DASH diet may help lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation, as well decrease heart injury and strain.

The same holds true whether you use the DASH diet alone or in conjunction with a low-sodium diet, although reducing your salt has added benefits.

That’s according to a new study published recently in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The findings gain more significance today when another study was released by the American Heart Association that concluded that the typical Southern diet of fried foods, processed meats, and sugar-laden beverages can increase risk of sudden cardiac death.

In that report, researchers said the danger of death from cardiac arrest can be lowered by following a Mediterranean style diet with higher volumes of fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, and legumes.

“Improving one’s diet by eating a diet abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish such as the Mediterranean diet and low in fried foods, organ meats, and processed meats, characteristics of the Southern-style dietary pattern, may decrease one’s risk for sudden cardiac death,” wrote James M. Shikany, DrPH, FAHA, the study’s lead author and a professor of medicine and associate director for research in the Division of Preventive Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

In the DASH diet study, researchers randomly assigned 412 participants (baseline of 42 percent Black and 55 percent women) with elevated blood pressure to either the DASH diet or a control regimen designed to reflect a typical diet in the United States with levels varying from low, medium, to high sodium intake over 4 weeks.

While previous studies have shown the link between the DASH diet and lower blood pressure, this is the first that looks more deeply at the role of salt.

Blood tests were used to examine protein biomarkers or measurable indicators of heart health in the blood, including injury, stress, and inflammation.

In the DASH diet group, researchers said cardiac damage and inflammation declined by 18 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

They reported that combining the DASH diet with reduced-sodium resulted in the greatest reductions in the biomarkers for injury (20 percent) and stress (23 percent) — although inflammation wasn’t significantly impacted by salt intake alone.

The DASH diet aims to lower sodium levels to meet the recommendations set forth in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

But that’s not all.

“The DASH way of eating is arguably as much about optimizing potassium, magnesium, and calcium — all of which are blood pressure lowering minerals — as it is about reducing sodium,” Andy De Santis, RD, a published author and weight loss specialist, told Healthline.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a nutritionist and the author of “Skinny Liver,” said the studies validate what she has been preaching as a dietitian for the past 20 years.

“The DASH diet paired with a low-sodium diet is an excellent example of what we as Americans should be striving to achieve for our bodies,” she told Healthline.

The low sodium focus could be particularly effective for males looking to lower their blood pressure. De Santis said that men tend to consume more sodium than women.

The DASH diet encourages you to choose these foods more often:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • low-fat dairy products
  • whole grains
  • poultry
  • fish
  • nuts

The DASH diet limits these types of foods and nutrients:

  • saturated fats
  • total fat
  • cholesterol
  • red meat
  • sweets and sugar-containing beverages

This way of eating is aligned with the Mediterranean diet, which is also commonly associated with lower blood pressure levels and reduced cardiac risk.

Experts say the DASH eating plan is highly ranked because it’s not actually a diet.

Kirkpatrick said she tells her clients to approach any dietary habit change with the mindset that there also needs to be a lifestyle change to ensure sustainability remains constant.

“Someone who indulges in heavily processed foods daily may have a more difficult time transitioning to a DASH diet lifestyle and low-sodium diet all at once,” she said.

Here are some of Kirkpatrick’s tips for success:

  • start with a diet that incorporates DASH aspects
  • slowly get stricter with the guidelines
  • focus on lower sodium foods

“Everyone will have a different starting point and see results at different times,” Kirkpatrick said. “Remembering that any change is positive and that the body is adaptive to any diet over time will help those just transitioning to remain committed.”

De Santis’ advice is to focus on what you will do, rather than what you think you shouldn’t do.

From there, he said you can also start paying more attention to the sodium content in packaged goods and meals and compare them with similar products, such as different sauces, and start choosing ones that are lower in sodium.