Diet & Weight Loss
11 Things to Know About the DASH Diet
Doctors and dietitians love it, and it’s won top honors as the best diet for eight years running. But what is it, exactly, and is it right for you?
What is the DASH diet?
The DASH diet—short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension—is a healthy-eating, heart-conscious plan that aims to treat or prevent high blood pressure by lowering sodium intake and increasing the consumption of nutrient-rich foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, following this diet will give you results in just two weeks; over time, your systolic blood pressure could drop as much as 14 points.
How does it lower blood pressure?
For starters, cutting back on salt can work some serious magic. But in addition to that, the DASH diet—with its focus on vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins, as well as on portion control—cuts down on foods that contain fat and cholesterol and increases foods with fiber and protein. The diet also delivers foods high in potassium, calcium, and magnesium, all of which help to lower blood pressure.
Is it good for weight loss?
The short answer: Yes. The slightly longer one: This “diet” wasn’t intended for weight loss, though you will see losses as you eat better and eat less, especially if you specifically design your daily meal plan with fewer calories. One 2010 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that overweight followers of the DASH diet who also exercised lost an average of 19 pounds over four months. While exercise is not a DASH requirement, it certainly aids your weight-loss efforts. Check out these 37 diet secrets from nutritionists.
Are there any other benefits to following the DASH diet?
Aside from lowering blood pressure, Healthline reports the DASH diet can lower cholesterol levels, as well as reduce your risk for cancer, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and heart disease. According to a study by Rush University Medical Center, it can also lessen your chances of developing depression by 11 percent. While those results indicate that the happy meals you eat on the DASH diet could take the place of a happy pill, more research needs to confirm this benefit.
So, what exactly will I be eating on the DASH diet?
Instead of outlining an approved list of foods, the DASH diet focuses on the number of servings in different food groups. That said, you’ll generally be shifting your focus from meats, dairy, and unhealthy treats to whole fruits and veggies, with the other stuff sprinkled in. What does that translate to for a real meal? According to MedicineNet.com, if you’re following a 1,600-calorie-a-day diet, your menu might look like this:
- Breakfast: Steel cut oatmeal with chopped pecans, ½ a chopped apple and cinnamon, black coffee
- Morning snack: half of an apple with 1 tsp peanut butter, large glass of water
- Lunch: spring greens salad with mixed vegetables, grilled chicken breast and vinaigrette dressing. Drink unsweetened iced tea or water.
- Afternoon snack: unsweetened fruity iced tea or carrot sticks with hummus
- Dinner: spiralizer-made zucchini pasta with marinara made with ground turkey and Italian spices, sparkling mineral water
- Dessert: strawberries, 1 tbsp. vanilla yogurt, a dusting of cocoa powder
What foods do I need to eliminate from my diet?
This probably won’t come as a huge shock to you, but you’ll be cutting back on the guilty pleasure stuff: candy, cookies, salty snacks, soda, alcohol, and processed foods. DASH actually does allow limited sweets, but only around five servings per week. One thing to remember is that sodium lurks in unlikely places—such as salad dressings, cold cuts, bread, and cereal—so you’ll need to become an expert label-reader. Check out these 50 healthy-eating tips that will surprise you.
If I’m cutting out salt, how can I add flavor to my meals?
Spices and herbs are great, flavorful substitutes for straight-up salt. Lisa Mikus, a registered dietitian with Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition Services and coauthor of Everyday Diabetes Meals: Cooking for One or Two suggests these tweaks: “Try adding cinnamon to your oatmeal, cook salmon with lemon and dill, use dried rosemary on potatoes, and cook chicken fajitas with garlic powder and cumin.” While dried-spice blends can be a good addition to your pantry, make sure the ones you choose don’t contain salt.
Who is the DASH diet best for?
The DASH diet, which was developed with funds from the National Institutes of Health, is particularly recommended for anyone with high blood pressure or even a family history of high blood pressure, heart disease, or stroke. That said, following it—or even incorporating some of its principles—can be good for almost anyone since it’s a healthy lifestyle choice, not a fad diet. After all, if you’re regularly eating out or eating a lot of processed foods, you’re likely consuming too much sodium. And research indicates that aside from the obvious health problems, a sodium-heavy diet could lead to overeating and weight gain.
Are there any dangers associated with it?
You need some sodium in your diet, and the standard DASH diet allows up to 2,300 milligrams per day. (The lower-sodium version recommends 1,500.) So make sure you follow the guidelines and don’t go overboard by cutting out all salt. Mikus adds that DASH might not be the optimal choice for high-endurance athletes who sweat excessively or for people with hypotension or chronic gastrointestinal conditions in which malabsorption is an issue. Here are eight signs that you’re on a diet that’s not right for you.
How hard is it to maintain the DASH diet?
On the good, stress-free days when you have the time and energy to cook at home, it’s relatively easy. But as with any diet, there are challenges when you want to grab something on the go or eat at a restaurant. Mikus advises: “Read the nutrition facts panel when available, ask for dressings and sauces to be put on the side, and avoid [food] with words such as fried, battered, or creamed.”
I’ve heard that this is the best diet out there. Is that true?
U.S. News & World Report named the DASH diet as the “best overall” diet for the eighth year in a row, though this year it’s sharing the honors with the Mediterranean diet. The two approaches are similar in the types of foods they recommend—though the Mediterranean diet adds more healthy fats such as fish and olive oil—and they both lower blood pressure and cholesterol. While the DASH diet is a proven plan, the “best” diet is the one that makes you want to follow it over the long haul.
Check out these foods that also lower blood pressure naturally.