The DASH Diet - The Best Diet You Probably Don't Know About

If you have followed Thinky Bites for a little while, you'll know that I'm not a big fan of diets, per se. To me, the word diet brings to mind restrictive and complicated meal plans, and too good to be true weight loss claims. Popular fad diets don't allow you to recognize your own hunger cues and, often times, make you feel guilty about your food choices. And for this reason, I had a few reservations about writing, and in essence, encouraging a specific diet. However, the DASH diet isn't your typical fad diet.

The DASH diet was recently named the top diet of 2015 by panel of experts for the US News and World Report. This ranking is interesting because you probably haven't heard too much about the DASH diet despite it being around for a number of years. The DASH diet is not highly publicized, nor is it celebrity-endorsed. It doesn't over-promise with claims of rapid weight loss or an ability to make your life happier. The DASH diet has three main redeeming factors, of which I will share with you along the way. 

 

What Is the DASH Diet?

The DASH, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, diet was established as, you guessed it, a dietary approach to treat and prevent high blood pressure. In the early 1990's the National Institute of Health (NIH) conducted a large scale, multi-center dietary study examining the effects of diet on hypertension. After almost a decade of study phases, a dietary pattern that was found to benefit hypertension began to emerge, and the DASH diet was conceived. 

redeeming factor #1: The DASH diet is based on nearly a decade of data. 

 

Is the DASH Diet Effective?

The main goal of the DASH diet is to decrease hypertension, or high blood pressure, a condition which effects 970 million people worldwide and can lead to a stroke, kidney damage, aneurysm and coronary heart disease. 

After its inception, there have been a number of studies looking into the efficacy of the DASH diet on blood pressure, as well as other factors including weight, blood sugars, and cholesterol. The DASH diet has been found to be effective in lowering both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, in people with and without hypertension. These blood pressure lowering effects can even be seen even when the DASH diet is consumed with a "standard" sodium level of 3450 mg per day (1.5 teaspoons), showing that the anti-hypertensive principles of the DASH diet are not due to sodium reduction alone.

Aside from blood pressure, the DASH diet has been shown to reduce waist circumference and weight, improve blood sugar control, and improve cholesterol profiles (decreasing "bad" LDL cholesterol and triglyerides while increasing "good" HDL cholesterol). One study found that the DASH protocol had the greatest effects on those with the highest baseline body mass and blood pressure, indicating that those at the highest cardiometabolic risk could benefit the most from such a dietary strategy. So, we have found that not only does the DASH diet improve blood pressure but it also can positively impact weight and overall metabolic health.

The DASH diet was not developed as someone's get rich quick scheme, as many diets these days appear to be. It doesn't promise "a new skinnier you in just 4 weeks" nor does it attach fear or guilt to your food. I, personally, like the focus on metabolic health as an endpoint for success, not the numbers on a scale. Body weight can not always tell you whether you are metabolically healthy. When it comes down to it, it is your metabolic health (e.g. blood pressure, blood sugars, cholesterol levels) that are your best indicators of health. When diets focus too much on the scale, health can be overlooked. Many fad diets ignore health, whether by excluding whole food groups or promoting huge calorie deficits. These types of diets are unsustainable and unhealthy in the long run. 

redeeming factor #2: The DASH diet improves metabolic health.

 

What are the dietary components of the DASH Diet?

The DASH diet isn't just a low sodium diet, although most following it do limit salt. A major part to this diet's effectiveness is the presence of a number of key nutrients, notably calcium, potassium and magnesium. These minerals work together to improve blood pressure. In addition to these nutrients, the DASH eating plan is high in fiber, low in saturated fat and provides a good balance of vitamins and minerals. 

Let's take a closer look at what is recommended by the DASH eating plan (based on 2000 calories/day) and example servings sizes:

WHOLE GRAINS  (Source of fiber, magnesium and B vitamins)                                                                     Servings: 6-8 per day

  • 1 piece of whole grain bread
  • 1/2 cup brown rice or other whole grain
  • 3/4 cup of cooked cereal
  • 1 cup cold breakfast cereal
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat pasta

VEGETABLES (Source of fiber, vitamins and minerals including magnesium, potassium, calcium)               Servings: 4-5 per day      

  • 1/2 cup cut of vegetables
  • 1 cup leafy greens (raw) 
  • 1/2 cup leafy greens (cooked)

FRUIT (Source of fiber, vitamins and minerals including magnesium, potassium, calcium)                              Servings: 4-5 per day

  • 1/2 cup cut up fruit 
  • 1 whole piece of fruit (medium size)
  • 1/4 cup dried fruit

LEAN MEATS, FISH OR POULTRY (Source of protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc)                                       Servings: 6 oz per day

  • 30g sliced meat (1 oz)
  • 1/4 cup canned fish (1 oz)
  • 1/4 cup ground meat (1 oz)
  • 1 egg (1 oz)
  • 1 cooked chicken breast (3 oz)
  • 1 palm-sized piece of meat, fish or poultry (~ 3 oz)

DAIRY (Provides calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin D and protein)                                                      Servings: 2-3 per day

  • 1 cup milk, reduced fat
  • 1 cup yogurt 
  • 1.5 oz cheese (~ size of 3 dominoes)
  • 1/3 cup shredded cheese

FATS AND OILS (Provides fats for absorption of fat soluble vitamins, vitamin E)                                         Servings: 2-3 per day

  • 1 teaspoon butter or non-hydrogenated margarine
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons salad dressing

NUTS, SEEDS, AND BEANS (Source of fiber, heart healthy fats, calcium, potassium, magnesium)            Servings: 4-5 per week

  • 3/4 cup lentils or beans
  • 1/4 cup nuts or seeds
  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter (or other nut/seed butter)     

The DASH diet promotes whole, unprocessed foods which by itself will decrease your intake of the hypertension-inducing sodium. Restricting processed foods will also limit excessive intake of unnecessary sugars, saturated fats and trans fats. The DASH protocol recommends high fiber foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes which all promote good blood sugar control, heart health and weight management. 

One of the keys to the DASH diet's success with lowering blood pressure, as well as with improving blood sugars, cholesterol levels and weight is its focus on fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables combined make up the largest food group in the DASH eating plan. To get the most out of the blood pressure lowering effects of this diet, choose fruits and veggies with the richest sources of magnesium (e.g. dark leafy greens, broccoli, avocados, bananas, peas), potassium (e.g. dark leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, bananas, mangoes, oranges, tomatoes, broccoli) and calcium (e.g. dark leafy greens, okra, oranges, broccoli). Of course variety is the key when it comes to fruit and vegetable intake, but it doesn't hurt to make some of these mineral-rich fruits and veggies a frequent part of your dietary regime.

redeeming factor #3: Eating plan is based on easy to find and prepare foods.

 

Overall, the DASH diet is pretty reasonable with respect to food selection and portions. There really isn't anything extreme about this way of eating. No food groups are excluded and no one should be left hungry at the end of the day. All foods recommended on the DASH diet are those found in a typical grocery store and there is no need to make extra trips to fancy, overpriced food markets to complete this meal plan. 

Personally, I'm quite happy that the DASH diet was chosen to sit at the top spot when ranked against numerous other diets. It is the responsible choice for a winner because after all, it is based on science and improves metabolic health. The DASH diet doesn't over promise and under deliver with respect to health, like so many fad diets do.