The DASH diet is a dietary eating plan that is recommended by the NIH (National Institutes of Health), an agency under the direction of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) was originally designed to help prevent and control hypertension; however, in addition to helping to lower cardiovascular disease, the USDA recommends the DASH diet as an ideal eating plan for everyone.
Not only does it offer a healthy eating plan that is good for your cardiovascular health, but it is also beneficial for individuals who have diabetes or who simply want to eat healthy. Of course, one of the side benefits of eating this healthy diet is that you’ll naturally begin to lose weight.
In January 2016, U.S. News & World Report tested 38 diets and ranked them for their Best Diet Rankings. The DASH diet earned the number one spot for Best Diets Overall as well as for Healthy Eating; it tied for the number two spot for Diabetes, and it ranked number three for Heart Health. On January 25, 2017, U.S. News & World Report ranked the DASH diet the best diet for the 7th year in a row. They also ranked it best for Heart Health, Diabetes, and Healthy Eating.
The DASH diet was originally developed to help lower blood pressure, but it is also very effective in managing or preventing diabetes, lowering cholesterol, and for weight loss. The DASH diet focuses on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains, low fat or non-fat dairy products, and heart healthy fats. Because this diet is centered on healthy eating, it offers a number of excellent health benefits besides lowering blood pressure. It aligns with the dietary recommendations for the prevention of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
The DASH Diet – What to Eat
The standard DASH diet allows up to 2,300 mg of sodium per day. A lower sodium version of the DASH diet restricts sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day.
Vegetables: 4 to 5 servings per day
Broccoli, sweet potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, greens, and other vegetables are rich in fiber and vitamins as well as important minerals like magnesium and potassium. One serving of vegetables is equivalent to 1 cup of raw leafy green vegetables or 1/2 cup of cut up cooked or raw vegetables.
Fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables can all be excellent choices. When buying canned or frozen vegetables, be sure to choose those that are labeled low sodium or no salt added.
Don’t think of vegetables as just a side dish. A delicious main dish could include a mixture of vegetables served over whole wheat pasta or brown rice.
Find creative ways to increase the number of vegetable servings you get in a day. For example, if you’re making a stir-fry, cut the amount of meat in half, and add more vegetables.
Fruits: 4 to 5 servings per day
Many fruits require little or no preparation to become an essential part of a healthy meal or snack. Like vegetables, most fruit is are packed with fiber, magnesium, and potassium; and, as an added bonus, they are usually low in fat. An example of a serving of fruit would be one medium size fruit, 1/2 cup of fresh, canned, or frozen fruit, or 4 ounces of fruit juice.
Whenever possible, leave edible peels on the fruit. Apple, pear, and most fruits that have a pit, also have peels that can add fiber and nutrients to your diet.
If you’re on any type of medication, be sure to check with your doctor before adding citrus fruit or citrus juice to your diet. Some citrus fruits and juices, such as grapefruit, can interact with some medications.
If you use canned fruit or fruit juice, choose one that has no added sugar.
Add more fruit to your diet by having a piece of fruit with your meals as well as one for a snack. Then, end your day with a delicious dessert made from fresh fruits with a bit of low-fat yogurt.
Grains: 6 to 8 servings per day
Grains include pasta, rice, bread, and cereal. Examples of a serving of grains would include 1/2 cup cooked pasta, rice, or cereal, 1 slice of whole grain or whole wheat bread, or 1 ounce of dry cereal.
Grains are naturally low in fat. You can keep them this way by not adding cream, butter, or cheese sauces.
Focus on eating whole grains; they not only have more nutrients, but they also have more fiber than refined grains. For example, use whole-wheat pasta rather than regular pasta, brown rice rather white rice, and whole-grain bread in place of white bread. When shopping, look for products that are labeled 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain.
Dairy: 2 to 3 servings per day
Milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products can provide a valuable source of vitamin D, calcium, and protein. However, the key to a healthy diet is to choose fat free or low fat dairy products; otherwise, they’ll end up being a major source of dietary fat, most of it saturated. Examples of a dairy serving include 1 cup of low fat yogurt, 1-1/2 ounces of part skim cheese, or a cup of skim or 1% milk.
If you are lactose intolerant and have problems digesting diary products, you can choose lactose free products or take the enzyme lactase which is available in an over the counter pill.
Low fat and fat free frozen yogurt can be an excellent way to increase the amount of dairy products in your diet while giving you a wonderful sweet treat. For a healthy twist, add some fruit.
Watch your sodium intake when eating cheese, even fat-free varieties are often high in sodium.
Lean meat, fish, and poultry: 6 servings or less per day
Meat can provide a good source of protein as well as B vitamins, zinc, and iron. Make sure to select lean meat and strive to keep meat to 6 ounces or less each day. As a bonus, if you cut back on the amount of meat you consume, you’ll have more room for extra vegetables.
Eat heart healthy fish, like herring, tuna, and salmon. These fish are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower total cholesterol.
Trim fat and skin from poultry as well as meat; then, broil, bake, grill or roast rather than frying in fat.
Fats and oils: 2 to 3 servings per day
Fats are an important part of a healthy diet. Fat can help your body’s immune system as well as help with the absorption of essential vitamins. However, too much fat can increase your risk for diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. The DASH diet aims to establish a healthy balance by keeping total fat to less than 30% of daily caloric intake from fat, concentrating on healthier monounsaturated fats. Examples of a fat serving include 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons of salad dressing or a teaspoon of soft margarine.
Avoid all trans fat, these are commonly found in fried items as well as crackers and processed foods.
Trans fat and saturated fat can be a major factor in increasing your risk for developing coronary artery disease. The DASH diet helps you to keep daily saturated fat to less than 6% of your total calories by limiting whole milk, cream, eggs, butter, cheese, and meat, as well as foods that contain coconut oil, palm oil, lard, or solid shortenings.
Read labels on salad dressings and margarine so you can choose the brands that are free of trans fat and are the lowest in saturated fat.
Legumes, nuts, and seeds: 4 to 5 servings a week
Peas, lentils, kidney beans, sunflower seeds, and other foods in this category can be good sources of protein, magnesium, and potassium. They are also rich in fiber as well as phytochemicals, a plant compound that might protect against cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. Examples of a serving size include 2 tablespoons of seeds, 1/3 cup nuts, or 1/2 cup of cooked peas or beans.
Sometimes nuts get a bad reputation because they have a high fat content; however, they also contain omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fat, which are healthy types of fat. They are high in calories, so you need to eat them in moderation. Try adding nuts to salads, cereals, or stir fries.
Soy bean based products like tofu and tempeh can be a delicious alternative to meat. These soy based products contain the necessary aminio acids that your body will be able to convert into a complete protein, just like meat.
Sweets: 5 servings or less each week
Fortunately, you won’t have to eliminate all sweets in order to follow the DASH diet. Of course, you will need to use them in moderation. Examples of a serving include 1 cup of lemonade, 1/2 cup of sorbet, or 1 tablespoon of jelly, jam or sugar.
Reduce added sugar which provides no nutritional value, but can quickly add calories.
When you want a sweet treat, choose low fat or fat free items, such as jelly beans, fruit ices, sorbets, graham crackers, low fat cookies, or hard candy.
The use of artificial sweeteners can help satisfy a sweet tooth, while limiting your sugar intake. However, keep in mind, you must still use them sensibly. You could swap a diet soda for a full sugar soda; however, don’t choose the diet soda in place of a healthier option, such as water or low fat milk.
Tips for Success
Make changes gradually. Introduce one new whole grain to your diet at a time. Rather than trying to switch all grains to whole grains at one time, do it gradually. Incorporate an extra serving of vegetables at lunch or add a piece of fruit for your snack. You don’t have to jump in with both feet from day one. Making small changes gradually will get you where you want to be.
Reward your successes and forgive your slip-ups. When you’ve done a great job, reward yourself with something that isn’t food related. Rent a movie, spend time with a friend or buy yourself a new book. Remember, everyone slips up on occasion; this is especially true when you’re trying to learn something new, such as a new way of eating. Be forgiving! Making a lasting change is something that will take time, just get back on track and keep going.
Get active. Add physical activity to help improve both physical and mental health. You’ll lower your blood pressure and lose weight faster.