While it didn’t enjoy the same spotlight this January, the DASH diet was crowned as one of the best diets in the United States in 2019 by U.S. News and World Report, putting it on the fast-track to cause buzz on Instagram feeds all year long. In fact, the DASH diet had earned this distinction for most of the 2010s, but unlike many of the other diets we’ve seen percolating in our social media feeds for the last few years, the DASH diet actually has overwhelming support from the medical community — largely in part because it was developed in the 1990s by a team of researchers funded by the National Institute of Health.
Believe it or not, scientists first created this diet plan in response to the rise of cardiovascular disease in the United States, and many doctors only speak about the specifics of the DASH diet with their patients if high blood pressure is a factor for them. The DASH diet targets high sources of sodium and artery-clogging sources of fat to empower dieters to better their own heart health, but in the process, it targets some ingredients that some experts may find controversial.
Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, CSO, CDN, a registered dietitian within the Good Housekeeping Institute, says that while the Mediterranean diet is worthy of it’s “best” title this year, the DASH diet remains one of her favorite picks of all time. If you’re dealing with elevated blood pressure or other cardiovascular risks, there’s no question about it; but even if you’re looking to lose weight before hitting the beach this summer, the DASH diet may be safer for you compared to the keto diet or Whole30.
Here’s everything you need to know about the DASH diet, including what you can (and can’t eat), how it could help you eat healthier and lose weight, and how to get started.
What is the DASH diet?
Sassos has a clinical background in treating cancer patients in the New York area, but also has found herself thrust into understanding the ins-and-outs of the DASH diet as heart disease is actually the number one killer in the U.S., she says. “I had quite a few patients who passed away from heart disease rather than their actual cancer,” she explains. “There’s a huge sodium issue in America, and the DASH diet is specifically known to fight this trend.”
Ginger Meyer, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, a registered dietitian specializing in sports dietetics within the University of Missouri Health Care system, says the DASH diet successfully lowers blood pressure in patients with hypertension by targeting dietary sources of fat and largely scaling back or eliminating red meat and sugar altogether. In studies since its inception, the DASH program can further lower blood pressure if sodium is also targeted, she says.
“Some may experience lowering of blood pressure in a few weeks,” Meyer explains. “Other important lifestyle factors include achieving or maintaining a healthy body weight, participating in two hours and 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity each week, and limiting alcohol consumption.”
This diet, unlike others, isn’t truly designed to be used for the short term. Results vary on a case by case basis, Meyer says, but this approach to eating is often recommended for many years before true results are seen and doctors relax on restricting certain items.
What can you eat on the DASH diet?
Those following the program aren’t given a particular meal plan, but follow general guidelines. Here’s everything you’ll be able to enjoy on the DASH diet:
- Fruits: Apples, oranges, unripe bananas, apricots, and berries, or any variety that is low in sugar.
- Vegetables: Anything that falls under this category, and the more the better; including frozen and canned products, as long as they don’t contain added sodium.
- Whole grains: Whole-grain breads, brown rice, and rich, ancient grains like bulgur, quinoa, and oatmeal.
- Healthy dairy: Fat-free cheese, milk, and yogurt.
- Lean meats: Skinless chicken, white fish, turkey, and the occasional serving of red meat or pork.
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes: unsalted raw almonds, sunflower seeds, kidney beans.
- Healthy vegetable-based oils, including olive oil
Sassos says this diet plan is most in-line with what a regular, healthy lifestyle should look for most — a dietary routine that consists of 2,000 calories each day (or a higher or lower caloric intake recommended by your healthcare provider) consisting of wholesome ingredients. She says the diet recommends an adequate intake of non-fat and low-fat dairy products, two to three servings a day, as well as the appropriate servings of whole grains each day.
She believes that the best DASH diets are those that restrict sodium, as high-sodium diets can cause issues for otherwise-healthy patients. “When you go out to a restaurant, so many of us are drowning in salt, but this approach fixes that,” she says.
Here’s what you should avoid and limit as much as possible:
- Sugary products: Candy, cookies, sodas, and canned or sugar-added fruit juices and other treats should be eliminated.
- Full fat dairy and cheese
- Enriched Grains: White bread, pasta, plus things like packaged potato snacks.
- Anything containing elevated sodium levels. Think: frozen meals, convenience store snacks, fast food.
- Alcohol: In excess, it can be quite the stress on blood pressure, and added stress on liver.
These items shouldn’t come as too much of a shock: they’re all high in fat, sodium, and calories. Not to mention, they’re often highly calorically dense, but not in actual nutrients. “The DASH plan is rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and limits saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol,” Meyer explains.
Will the DASH diet help you lose weight?
Here’s the catch — the DASH diet wasn’t actually created to promote weight loss. Some health experts believe that asking those that don’t suffer with elevated blood pressure levels to restrict their sodium intake could promote unwarranted restrictions elsewhere (why restrict something if you’re consuming normal levels, right?).
But pro-DASH-diet supporters like Meyer and Sassos acknowledge that the average meal plan based on this diet inevitably promotes weight loss for most people. “Although the DASH diet was not designed to promote weight reduction, this eating plan can be followed at a lower calorie level for weight loss, and as you replace high-calorie, high-fat foods with low-calorie vegetables and fruits, weight will likely trend down,” Meyer explains.
For the best weight loss results, both experts agree: you’ll need to incorporate exercise into your routine. Plus, a 2010 clinical study found that, in a trial, people who exercise while enjoying the DASH diet were more likely to lower their blood pressure compared to those who didn’t.
How to get started:
You’ll need to consult your doctor or a registered dietitian before you make any radical changes to your diet. If you’ve determined that you should work on your blood pressure levels, don’t jump to change everything just yet. “Keep a food diary for several days and identify ways you could gradually increase servings of vegetables, fruits and whole grains,” Meyer says.
If you’re looking for particular meal plans or more tips for crafting DASH-friendly meals, both Sassos and Meyer recommend resources provided by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), which include an illustrated guide of the recommended number of servings on each food group by calorie level and serving size.