While many diets bring more risks than benefits, DASH is entirely different. You have probably heard a lot about this eating pattern. Many consider it the best diet. But, is DASH diet really the best as they say? Read on to learn more about this diet, its benefits, foods to eat and avoid, and what doctors say about it.
What is the DASH diet?
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) is a healthy eating plan created primarily to help manage or prevent hypertension or high blood pressure. The diet originated in the 1990s. More precisely, the National Institute of Health began funding research projects in 1992, to uncover whether dietary interventions can help treat hypertension (1). The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute assisted in developing this diet (2).
Important aspects of the DASH diet are a proper balance of nutrients and the consumption of healthful foods while focusing on portion size. The diet encourages you to reduce your intake of sodium and eat more magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
The reason the DASH diet revolves around lowering sodium intake is simple – it increases blood pressure (3). The CDC reports that 116 million people or nearly half of adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure. However, only one in four adults i.e. 4% of the affected population has their condition under control. In 2019, high blood pressure was the main or contributing cause of death for 516,955 people in the U.S. (4).
What are the types of DASH diet?
Two types of the DASH diet are:
- Standard DASH diet – refers to the consumption of 2300mg of sodium a day
- Low sodium DASH diet – consuming up to 1500mg of sodium a day
Both versions of the DASH diet aim to reduce intake of sodium, primarily because many people consume too much. As you eat less sodium, you should consume more potassium-rich foods. Why? Potassium promotes the relaxation of blood vessels thereby lowering blood pressure. Ideally, you should eat up to 4700mg of potassium a day (5).
Health benefits of the DASH diet
The health benefits of the DASH diet are supported by scientific evidence. Below, you can take a look at the most significant health effects of this eating pattern.
Lower blood pressure
DASH diet was created to aid management or to prevent high blood pressure. And it works! Studies have shown the participants experienced lower blood pressure even if they didn’t slim d or restrict intake of sodium (6, 7). In subjects who restricted sodium intake, blood pressure lowered even further (8). The greatest reduction in blood pressure reading is observed in participants with the lowest sodium intake.
The low-salt DASH diets are particularly beneficial for persons with hypertension as they can decrease systolic blood pressure by 12 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by 5 mmHg. In people with normal blood pressure, a low-salt diet can reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 4 and 2 mmHg respectively (9).
Blood pressure management is of huge importance. You see, hypertension can lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, heart failure, heart attack, kidney disease, and stroke.
Although DASH is not created for weight loss purposes, it can help people slim down (10, 11). Weight loss results from avoiding sugary and high-fat foods. These foods are abundant in calories. As you stop eating those foods on the DASH diet, you can lose weight. One thing to bear in mind is that the participants in studies and clinical trials who followed DASH diet were also in a controlled calorie deficit. This means they were instructed to consume fewer calories. Some people may need to consciously reduce calorie intake.
Other health benefits
Besides lower blood pressure and weight loss, the DASH diet may also:
- Decrease the risk of metabolic syndrome
- Reduce diabetes mellitus risk
- Lower risk of some cancers including breast cancer and colorectal cancer
- Reduce heart disease risk
What foods to eat?
When it comes to foods to eat, the DASH diet is not too restrictive. It still allows for the consumption of delicious, but healthy foods. But, you need to balance nutrient intake. For a 2100-calorie eating style, daily calorie intake should be as follows:
- Sodium – 2300mg or 1500mg (depending on the type of DASH diet)
- Fiber – 30g
- Potassium – 4700mg
- Calcium – 1250mg
- Magnesium – 500mg
- Cholesterol – 150mg
- Carbohydrate – 55% of daily calories
- Total fat – 27% of daily calories
- Protein – 18% of daily calories
- Saturated fat – 6% of daily calories
Foods you can eat on the DASH diet include:
- Fruits – 4-5 servings a day
- Vegetables – 4-5 servings a day
- Whole grains – 6-8 servings a day
- Low-fat milk and other low-fat dairy foods – 2-3 servings a day
- Fish, lean meats, lean poultry – 6 or fewer servings a day
- Legumes, nuts, and seeds – 4-5 servings a week
- Fats and oils – 2-3 servings a day
While you can limit your intake of sweets to less than five servings a week, the best thing to do is to avoid them entirely.
What foods to avoid?
Besides avoiding eating too much sodium, you should also stay away from:
- Foods and drinks with added sugar
- Salted nuts
In other words, you should avoid consuming sugary foods and heavily processed and refined foods. These foods are generally high in sodium and added sugar of course.
How to start with the DASH diet?
If you have never followed the DASH diet, you are probably wondering how to start. While it can be overwhelming, simple tips can help you have an easier start from the Western diet to DASH. Some of the most useful tips you may want to try include:
- Instead of chips and French fries, you can snack on almonds or another healthy snack such as celery sticks
- Add one serving of fruits and vegetables to every meal (be careful with dried or canned fruits, make sure they don’t contain added sugars, fresh fruits are always a good choice)
- Eat at least two meat-free meals a week (on meat days, make sure to eat lean meat instead of processed or fatty meats)
- Whenever possible use whole-wheat flour instead of white flour
- Reduce salt intake, but add more flavor to your meals with herbs and spices
- Read labels carefully to avoid products with high sodium content
- Swap all full-fat dairy items with low-fat dairy products
- Salads are healthy but avoid salad dressing
Do I need to exercise?
Yes, it is recommended to exercise. Since the main goal of this diet is to manage or prevent hypertension, physical activity plays a major role here. Ideally, you should exercise about 30 minutes a day most days of the week. The main goal is to get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on a weekly basis. Cardio exercises are good for your blood flow, but you may also do strength training on alternating days.
Does the DASH diet have side effects?
This eating pattern is generally safe, unlike many other dietary patterns. You are unlikely to experience serious adverse reactions. However, some people may experience bloating and nausea at the beginning due to high fiber content. As the body adapts, these side effects go away. Since the DASH diet is not a fad diet, it’s safer to follow.
Why the DASH diet is the best?
The reasons the DASH diet is the best, or at the top of the list of healthy diets, are numerous. This diet has the following advantages:
- Evidence-based benefits – many diets have advocates on social media who make bold claims and promise miraculous results, but without evidence to support any of that. The DASH diet is different. What makes DASH the best is a strong body of evidence that supports its benefits, as seen above
- Accessibility – foods recommended to eat on the DASH diet are easily accessible. You can find them in any grocery store or supermarket. Since the diet doesn’t include exotic or hard-to-find ingredients, it’s easy to get everything you need. This is important primarily because many eating patterns promote intake of food that an average person can’t easily obtain
- Nutritional balance – this diet remains within the USDA-provided dietary guidelines whereas many other diets impose a dramatic change in macronutrient intake. That way, the DASH diet protects you from nutritional deficiencies and problems they would cause
- Flexibility – not every person is the same, which is why calorie-related needs can vary. There are several DASH diet plans based on calorie intake necessary for men and women with different levels of physical activity. Plus, DASH diet is more versatile. Unlike other popular diets, it doesn’t encourage you to restrict entire food groups. Every food group has vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that provide different benefits ranging from a healthy weight to help you control blood pressure
- Vegan-friendly – you can follow this diet even if you are vegan or vegetarian. Only subtle modifications are necessary to make sure this diet works for your plant-based diet lifestyle. Instead of animal-based fats, you can opt for vegetable oil. Since you can’t eat red meat, you can opt for cooked rice instead of cooked meat. You should also get your lean proteins from plant-based sources
- Long-term effects – DASH is not just a diet, it’s a lifestyle. For that reason, it produces long-term results that can improve a person’s quality of life
- Promoted by health organizations – while doctors, scientists, and other experts usually criticize many diets for their potential dangers, the story is different with DASH. Many health organizations promote this diet. These organizations include the American Heart Association, National Institutes of Health, American Diabetes Association, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and many other organizations and institutions
What are the cons to the DASH diet?
Despite a wide range of benefits and positive effects, the DASH diet has some shortcomings too. Below, you can see the cons of this dietary pattern:
- Difficult to adjust – for men and women who eat a typical American diet, adapting to the DASH diet can be quite difficult. This is primarily due to sodium intake reduction. The CDC reports an average American consumes around 3400mg of sodium a day (12). A great deal of sodium consumption comes from the intake of processed foods, which you need to avoid on the DASH diet. Many people struggle to adhere to the DASH diet and need more than just counseling to follow this eating pattern successfully (13)
- Requires a lot of work – not everyone has enough time to cook food regularly and have their healthy meals ready. This diet requires more work than other eating regimens. Since it’s not a commercial diet, you can find prepackaged meals to heat up. So, if you have a busy lifestyle, the DASH diet could be tricky (but not impossible) to follow
- Involves calculating – although the DASH diet doesn’t include counting how many calories are in certain foods or meals, you still have some calculations to do. Primarily, it is necessary to measure portions and count servings of foods from different categories. You can download the DASH diet resources here to make this process easier
- Not for everyone – while the DASH diet is healthy and suitable for most people, some persons should be careful. These include men and women with chronic liver disease, chronic kidney disease, and those who use renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system antagonists (14). Patients with chronic heart failure, lactose intolerance, uncontrolled type 2 diabetes, and celiac disease should make modifications to the DASH diet
What do doctors say about the DASH diet?
Doctors and professionals within health and humans services say the DASH diet is one of the best dietary approaches for persons with high blood pressure, but also for those with other health problems and men and women who want to improve general wellbeing. For that reason, U.S. News and World Report ranked the DASH diet high on the scale of diets they review. In 2021, the DASH diet ranked second, right below the Mediterranean diet (15).
In fact, scientists found the effects of the DASH diet are more pronounced in people with hypertension at baseline and were comparable to antihypertensive medications. Doctors appreciate the DASH diet because it’s not a fad diet. Instead, the DASH diet is a healthy eating plan that promotes long-term lifestyle modifications (16).
DASH diet is one of the healthiest diets for many reasons. It was developed to reduce high blood pressure or to prevent it, but the DASH diet has other benefits too. For instance, it may lead to a reduced risk of diabetes. Many people lose weight successfully on this diet. However, DASH has some shortcomings too. Some people may find it tricky to determine the right servings, for example. You can always consult a healthcare provider or nutritionist for more guidance and professional medical advice. All in all, if you want to reduce blood pressure and experience other health benefits, DASH diet could be a great choice.