peasA heart-healthy diet is associated with decreased blood pressure, according to a new study that shows even small changes toward better eating can make a difference.

“The more compliant people are with the dietary guidelines, the more benefit we see in their blood pressure measurements,” said lead investigator Dr. Natalie Bello, a cardiologist and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. “There doesn’t seem to be a threshold; it’s a continuum. Every little bit of improvement in diet between people made a difference. Little steps can potentially lead to big improvements in their long-term cardiovascular health.”

Participants included 12,445 volunteers in the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos. Their average age was 38 years old, and 52 percent were female. About one-fifth of participants smoked. Ten percent had diabetes mellitus. The study volunteers came from four areas, the Bronx area of New York, Chicago, Miami and San Diego. Researchers used The Alternative Healthy Eating Index to assess participants’ adherence to U.S. dietary guidelines. The Index, created by a team of Harvard researchers in 2010, measures how well diet conforms to healthy eating on a score from 0 to 110.

For years, doctors have recommended that following dietary guidelines can decrease the risk for heart and blood vessel disease – but a diet’s direct effect on blood pressure measurements was unclear.

“This research suggests that healthy eating habits, including a diet enriched with fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in sodium and alcohol should be part of a primary cardiovascular prevention strategy as a means of maintaining a healthy blood pressure,” said Bello, whose research was presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2014 in November.

Even after adjusting for risk factors such as age, gender, physical activity, and cholesterol levels, “we found a positive correlation between a healthier diet and improvements in all components of blood pressure.” Bello said, “in particular we found a very strong relationship between healthy diet and lower pulse pressure, a surrogate of large artery disease.”

It’s good news for people who try but don’t always hit their healthy eating goals. Changes in the right direction can impact pressure. Eating long-chain fatty acids and polyunsaturated fats – the omega 3 “good fats” – seemed to make the most impact. Bello adds, “future research is necessary to tease out whether this benefit arises directly from eating more healthy fats or as a result of a substituting them for less healthy alternatives such as sugary beverages.”

“A difference as small as one additional serving of fish per week was associated with lower blood pressure,” she said.

The U.S. dietary guidelines emphasize three major goals:

  • Balance calories with physical activity to manage weight;
  • Consume more of certain foods and nutrients such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and fish, especially fatty fish with omega 3, such as salmon, trout and herring;
  • Consume fewer foods with sodium (salt), saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and refined grains.

Untreated high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, scars and damages arteries. It also increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and vascular disease. The condition affects one out of every three American adults. Consistent pressure readings of 140/90 mmHg and above are considered high.

The Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos is a large ongoing research project, begun in 2006, from the National Institutes of Health looking into the health conditions, risks and disparities among the Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Central and South American communities in the United States.

The Hispanic population is the fastest-growing minority population in the United States. The U.S. Census predicts the population will increase from 15 percent in 2008 to 30 percent by 2050.

“It’s a very important and growing part of our population that has been understudied,” Bello said. “The goal in the long term is to see what are the risk factors the individuals have and how do we impact their future risk of disease. “

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