This guest post was written by Juliana Cohen, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Merrimack College and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
You may have heard of the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which is recommended by the American Heart Association and other organizations to reduce blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) among adults.
The DASH diet emphasizes lower sodium consumption with plenty of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and plant-based proteins. Interestingly, this diet many not just benefit adults. The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated a DASH-style diet with sufficient protein and calories may also have potential health benefits for children.
Impact on Youth
We wanted to better understand the impact of the DASH diet on youth. So, we conducted a study to examine how closely American children’s diets align with the DASH diet and the association with CVD risk factors. We studied the diets and health outcomes of children ages 8-18 years (elementary through high school) using nationally representative data.
Overall, we found that very few children had diets that met DASH dietary targets, with middle and high school students eating significantly worse diets compared with elementary school age children. Children typically met only one or two DASH nutrient targets on an average day. They were least likely to eat the recommended levels of fiber or potassium. They also frequently ate too much saturated fat. Importantly, this study found that when high school students ate closer to a DASH-style diet, they had a healthier blood pressure.
Previous research has also found that U.S. children do not eat enough of healthy foods that are promoted by the DASH diet, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Similar to our research, a study that explored female adolescents’ consumption of a DASH–style diet also found it was associated with lower blood pressure. Overall, our findings and those of others suggests a DASH–style diet for children can have important implications for health outcomes both in childhood and later in life as well. Research suggests that high blood pressure in childhood tracks into adulthood and is also strongly associated with the risk of metabolic syndrome as adults.
What does the research suggest?
This research suggests that we need to focus more on innovative strategies to encourage healthier eating for young people. Because they can make independent decisions about their food choices, older children may not make the most nutritious choices. Changes can begin in the home with parents providing quick and easy food options, like sliced fruits and vegetables, low fat yogurt, or whole grain, lower-sodium crackers. Where possible, cooking more at home (and with kids!) can also help reduce sodium levels in meals as well as provide opportunities to incorporate more whole grains, vegetables, etc.
What can we do?
We also need to support programs and policies that emphasize healthy eating that align with the DASH dietary recommendations. Evidence is increasingly building that the national school lunch and breakfast programs, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lowering sodium to healthy, moderate levels, may play an important role in the diets and health of students. Congress and the Administration should not further weaken these standards, and parents, doctors, teachers, or anyone who cares about the health and well-being of children should consider contacting their representatives to express their support for healthy school meals.
Creating a healthier environment both at home and at school will help encourage children to have a dietary pattern that aligns with the DASH diet, which can lead to improvements in short- and long-term health outcomes. You can join the AHA’s efforts to offer healthier school meals to kids.
Juliana Cohen is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Merrimack College and an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
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