Whether in the U.S. or Canada, our holiday diets are filled with rich food and glorious desserts. We love the tastes, but we all suffer from the fat and calories, not only with increased weight but with an increased risk of high blood pressure and other dangerous medical conditions as well.

For those already trying to reduce their consumption of sugar and fat, the holidays are a difficult time. For those considering a new diet, this may be the worst time to make a fresh start. Yet, December passes, and the new year brings new possibilities. It’s not too early to begin thinking about changes in your family’s diet for 2006.

One in every four Americans – and one in every five Canadians – has hypertension: blood pressure high enough to risk heart or kidney failure, aneurysms, heart attacks, stroke or blindness.

Many more are prehypertensive, meaning their blood pressure is higher than normal and likely to build to a dangerous stage.

“The good news is that, in most cases, hypertension can be treated and controlled through diet and exercise,” says NEA – the Association of Union Constructors Executive Vice President and LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Unfortunately, however, one third of everyone with hypertension is unaware that they have this condition and, therefore, do not treat it. This is why we urge signatory contractors, their employees, LIUNA members and their families to have their blood pressure checked and to consult with their doctor if it is on the high side.”

Hypertension and Diet

High blood pressure (hypertension) is produced by excessive concentrations of various fat substances in the blood. Our bodies naturally produce much of these substances, but natural quantities are augmented by fat consumed in our diets.

High Blood Pressure Danger Zones
<120 mmHG
<80 mmHG
120-139 mmHG
80-89 mmHG
Stage 1
140-160 mmHG
90-100 mmHG
Stage 2
>160 mmHG
>100 mmHG

Since 2001, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institute of Health has recommended the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). This low-sodium (low-salt) diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, has high fiber and ensures adequate potassium and other minerals. Generally, it is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fatty acids, three kinds of fat substances that can enter the blood. DASH recommends “healthful” fats – such as low-fat dairy products and vegetable oils – and minimizes sweetened desserts and beverages. DASH also includes high levels of carbohydrates (grains, bread, pasta, potatoes) and lean meat, fish and poultry.

The DASH diet is known to reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the most damaging kind of cholesterol, but it has little effect on triglycerides, another type of unhealthy blood fat. Unfortunately, the DASH diet also has the tendency to reduce high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the kind of cholesterol that is least dangerous and most useful to the body.

Tweaking the DASH Diet

While the DASH diet remains the “hallmark to prevent and treat hypertension,” according to Dr. Frank M. Sachs of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a study released in November at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association shows that DASH can be tweaked for even better results. Sachs was a co-investigator on the new study.

In the study, three groups of volunteers followed assigned diets for six weeks. Although all three diets were much like the DASH diet, one was richer in carbohydrates, one richer in protein and one richer in healthful fat.

All three diets substantially reduced blood pressure and LDL levels, enough to cut the 10-year risk of coronary heart disease by at least 16 percent.

However, the higher-carb diet was outperformed by the higher-protein and the higher-healthful fat diets, both of which produced a 20 percent reduction in the long-term risk of coronary heart disease.

Dr. Lawrence Appel, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and the study’s lead author, summarized the findings. “The current recommended DASH diet that is rich in carbohydrates can be further improved by replacing some of those carbohydrates with lean protein from plants and low-fat dairy products or with monounsaturated fats.”

Traditionally, carbohydrates are called the “staff of life” and form the basic content of most American and Canadian diets. One healthy way to move away from them and toward more lean protein is to eat more beans and nuts.

Fat is a necessary part of human diets, but some fats are better or worse than others.
Animal and dairy products, as well as palm, palm kernel and coconut oils, contain a lot of saturated fat. This is the most harmful kind of fat because it stimulates the body’s production of LDL cholesterol.

Polyunsaturated fats (corn, safflower, soy and sunflower oils) are better because they lower LDL cholesterol, but they also lower HDL.

Monounsaturated fats are the best because they lower LDL without lowering HDL. Avocados, as well as olive, peanut and canola oils, are good sources of monounsaturated fat.

[Steve Clark]