Posted on Feb 11, 2021, 4 p.m.
Eating plans such as the Mediterranean diet and following a plant-based diet have become increasingly popular, and this is for very good reasons as they are both proven and backed by science. This article focuses on another proven, science-backed eating plan: The DASH diet.
What you choose to eat can affect your heart health. Eating well can be confusing with all the diet information out there. The DASH food plan—Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension —is supported by NIH research. It’s a flexible and balanced eating plan designed to improve the health of your heart, especially if you have high blood pressure (hypertension) or those with prehypertension.
Following the DASH food plan doesn’t require any special foods. It has easy-to-understand guidelines and nutritional goals. And it’s tailored to your calorie needs, based on your age and physical activity level. You can also find sample meal plans to help you make heart-healthy choices.
The DASH plan has several recommendations such as targeting calorie intake each day by eating vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. It includes healthy foods like fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils. It is important to choose foods that are low in saturated and trans fats, but rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, protein, and other beneficial nutrients to help lower blood pressure. It also recommends selecting items that are lower in sodium. You can even follow a vegetarian DASH diet.
This meal plan limits foods high in saturated fats such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils. It also encourages you to limit/cut back on sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets. Limiting sodium is a key part of the plan. Too much sodium can raise your blood pressure. The standard DASH diet can include up to 2,300 mg of sodium while the lower sodium version can include up to 1,500 mg of sodium per day. The American Heart Association recommends an upper limit of 1,500 mg of sodium per day for all adults.
The DASH eating plan is just one part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. Experts recommend combining the plan with physical activity to control blood pressure. Staying a healthy weight, limiting your alcohol intake, and managing stress will also help your heart health. Alcohol and caffeine can increase blood pressure, thus it is recommended to cut back/limit intake.
Four NHLBI-funded studies tested the health benefits of the DASH diet by comparing the DASH diet with the typical American diet or by comparing different variations of the DASH diet. Another NHLBI-funded study, the PREMIER clinical trial, measured the health benefits of following the DASH diet and increasing physical activity. The results of these studies showed that the DASH diet lowers blood pressure and LDL cholesterol in the blood and shaped the NHLBI’s DASH eating plan recommendations, which includes following a DASH diet with reduced sodium intake.
By following the DASH diet, you may be able to reduce your blood pressure by a few points in just two weeks. Over time, the top number of your blood pressure (systolic blood pressure) could drop by eight to 14 points, which can make a significant difference in your health risks.
Because the DASH diet is a healthy way of eating, it offers health benefits besides just lowering blood pressure. The DASH diet is also in line with dietary recommendations to prevent osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. In fact, according to dashdiet.org, new research shows that following the DASH diet over time will reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease, as well as kidney stones, and it also has benefits for teens with hypertension.
While this is not per se a weight loss program, one could lose unwanted pounds because it helps to guide you to make healthier food choices using foods readily available at your local grocery shop. This plan typically includes around 2,000 calories a day, but if the goal is to lose weight more calories may need to be reduced, also you may need to adjust serving goals based on individual circumstances which can be addressed by consulting with your physician or certified healthcare professional.
Foods that are recommended in this plan are naturally low in sodium, but it also provides tips to reduce sodium further by:
- Using sodium-free spices or flavorings with your food instead of salt
- Not adding salt when cooking rice, pasta, or hot cereal
- Rinsing canned foods to remove some of the sodium
- Buying foods labeled "no salt added," "sodium-free," "low sodium" or "very low sodium"
When you read food labels you may be surprised at how much sodium food contains, especially processed and packaged foods. Even so-called low sodium choices often contain a surprising amount of sodium. If food seems bland as you are reducing sodium intake try using salt-free herbs and spices to ease the transition and add a splash of taste.
Reward your success with non-food options like a new book or seeing a movie, and forgive any slip-ups as these are part of a learning process. Changing your lifestyle is a long term process, try to identify what triggered the slip-up, take note, and pick up where you left off. Should you be having trouble, get support from those who may be able to offer tips, like a dietitian, a support group, and your physician or certified medical professional.
In addition to being recommended by your physician, DASH is also endorsed by:
- The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (one of the National Institutes of Health, of the US Department of Health and Human Services)
- The American Heart Association (AHA)
- The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- US guidelines for the treatment of high blood pressure
- The 2011 AHA Treatment Guidelines for Women
- The Mayo Clinic
Eating healthy is not an all or nothing kind of thing, the important part is that you on average are eating more healthier choices with plenty of variety in your diet that are nutritious to help you to avoid boredom and extremes. This type of meal plan can help you have that kind of variety to reach your goals. Slip-ups are just a temporary setback, look at them as an opportunity to learn not as a failure, the only failure is completely giving up. Never give up, you can do it, and more importantly, you are worth the positive benefits that are linked to living a healthier lifestyle. Enjoy.
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.
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