From Atkins and South Beach to Mediterranean and vegan, there are so many diets out there. All of the options can make choosing the right diet more challenging. While some diets are fads and aren’t easy to stick to, others are supported by research and endorsed by dietitians, nutritionists and other health experts.
The DASH diet falls into the latter category. DASH, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, has successfully helped people with high blood pressure. The diet also has several other benefits, including helping with weight loss and improving heart health.
What Is the DASH Diet?
Calling DASH a diet isn’t exactly the right term. It’s more of a long-term healthy eating plan. Unlike many fad diets, DASH is fairly easy to follow — as long as you’re committed to eating healthy.
DASH emphasizes consuming fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, fat-free or low-fat dairy, nuts, beans and healthy fats. DASH limits sugars and foods high in saturated fat, like red meat and full-fat dairy products.
For the average person who eats a 2,000-calorie daily diet, this would mean:
Six daily servings or less of meat, poultry and fish
Six to eight daily servings of whole grains
Four to five daily servings of vegetables
Four to five daily servings of fruit
Two to three daily servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy products
Two to three daily servings of healthy fats and oils
2,300 milligrams of sodium a day
The DASH eating plan also recommends four to five servings of dry beans, nuts, seeds and peas and up to five weekly servings of sweets.
Rebecca Bradley, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, a registered dietitian and clinical nutrition manager at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, said DASH is so effective because of its focus on whole, unprocessed food and limiting sodium intake.
“The DASH eating plan was developed as a large study looking at whether changing the sodium intake of a person could affect his or her blood pressure. And, of course, managing blood pressure reduces all sorts of end damage to the kidneys, heart and eyes,” she said.
“That’s where it started, and it was successful when they reduced sodium to 2,300 milligrams,” Bradley said. “They went on to do another leg of that study that reduced sodium to 1,500 milligrams a day and increased the potassium, which is another mineral that’s involved in blood pressure management. For a certain subset of people, that’s even more effective.”
The Benefits of the DASH Diet
Of course, eating healthy is easier said than done for most people. Bradley said one of the biggest advantages of DASH is that it’s simple. It doesn’t require you to purchase or experiment with unfamiliar foods.
“People are encouraged to buy fresh or frozen vegetables and fresh or frozen or canned fruit that doesn’t have a lot of sugar added to it [and] to cook their chicken, turkey or fish fresh, rather than using processed ingredients,” she said. “It also emphasizes plant fats over animal fats. There are a host of benefits to having mono and polyunsaturated fats in the diet.”
While one of the main benefits of DASH is controlling blood pressure, studies have also indicated that DASH can help people lose weight and lower their bad cholesterol levels, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Though eating healthy can get expensive, Bradley said there are several affordable ways to follow the DASH diet. “Using frozen foods can be very cost effective because there’s not any waste,” she said. Bradley also encourages people to adjust their grocery budget, buy store-brand food items because the quality often is comparable to name-brand items and to do a lot of meal prepping and cooking in batches to make it easier to eat healthy, especially during busy weeks.
“Rethink where your grocery money is going. If you’re looking in your grocery cart and you’ve got snack foods, soda and lots of boxed foods — those things are expensive. People don’t necessarily look at price per serving,” she said. “You must have a strategy. You have to make a menu. You have to shop from your menu and just buy the things you actually need for the week.”
Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle
What the DASH diet illustrates is that eating healthy doesn’t have to be complicated.
That said, choosing the right diet and changing the way you eat requires long-term effort. If you start small and consider using the DASH diet as your roadmap, you’ll eventually get there, Bradley said.
“It’s like any change you make in lifestyle — when you first start you have to be committed to doing it. You have to work at it,” she said. “It takes a while to get all the pieces in place.” The results, however, will be worth it.
For more information on healthy eating and the DASH diet, talk to your Lahey Health physician.