The aim: Preventing and lowering high blood pressure (hypertension).
The claim: A healthy eating pattern is key to deflating high blood pressure – and it may not hurt your waistline, either.
The theory: Nutrients like potassium, calcium, protein and fiber are crucial to fending off or fighting high blood pressure. You don’t have to track each one, though. Just emphasize the foods you’ve always been told to eat (fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy), while shunning those we’ve grown to love (calorie- and fat-laden sweets and red meat). Top it all off by cutting back on salt, and voila!
DASH Diet is ranked:
Weight Loss Short-Term3.4
Weight Loss Long-Term3.2
Easy to Follow3.6
Scores are based on experts’ reviews.
How does DASH Diet work?
Dos & Don’ts
First, decide how much you want to read. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), which helped develop DASH, publishes free guides on the plan. One (PDF here) is 20 pages while another (PDF here) is six. Both take you through the same process of determining how many calories you should eat for your age and activity level, tell you where those calories should come from and remind you to go easy on salt. It’s as simple as that.
[Check out the TLC Diet, which is designed to lower bad LDL cholesterol.]
For a 2,000-calorie diet, you should shoot each day (unless otherwise noted) for six to eight servings of grains; four to five each of veggies and fruit; two to three of fat-free or low-fat dairy; six or fewer of lean meat, poultry and fish, with one serving being equivalent to an ounce; four to five (a week) of nuts, seeds and legumes; two to three of fats and oils; and five or fewer (a week) of sweets. DASH suggests capping sodium at 2,300 milligrams a day and eventually working to stay at about 1,500 milligrams.
It’s OK to ease into DASH. Try adding just one vegetable serving to a meal, and a fruit serving to another. Go (sort of) vegetarian by preparing two or more meat-free dishes each week. And start using the herbs and spices hiding in the back of the pantry – they’ll make you forget the salt’s not on the table. Meanwhile, you’ll be encouraged to stick to a regular physical activity program.
As for weight loss, you’re advised to ask your doctor about how to best tailor your plan. Because DASH emphasizes so many healthful foods, it can easily support weight loss. Just move more and eat slightly less, says the NHLBI.
How much does it cost?
Fresh fruits, veggies and whole-grain products are generally pricier than the processed, fatty, sugary foods most Americans consume.
Will you lose weight?
Likely, provided you follow the rules, and especially if you design your plan with a calorie deficit.
Though not originally developed as a weight-loss diet, some studies have looked at DASH’s potential to help dieters shed pounds. Here’s a closer look at the data:
- In one study, published in 2010 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 144 overweight or obese adults with high blood pressure were assigned to one of three approaches: DASH, DASH plus exercise and classes on weight loss, and a control diet where participants maintained their usual eating habits. After four months, those in the beefed up DASH group lost on average 19 pounds – while the other groups either lost a little or gained weight.
- In another study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2006, researchers randomly assigned 810 adults with borderline or mild high blood pressure to three groups. The first received general advice on lifestyle changes to control blood pressure. The second had goals of staying under 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, losing weight, exercising and limiting alcohol. The third mirrored the second, but participants were also told to follow DASH’s dietary guidelines. After 18 months, the second group lost an average of about 8 pounds, while the DASH group lost about 9 1/2 – both significantly more than the first group’s 3 pounds.
How easy is it to follow?
While it may be difficult to give up your favorite fatty, sugary and salty fare, DASH doesn’t restrict entire food groups, upping your chances of sticking with it long-term.
Convenience: Although recipe options are boundless, alcohol is not. The DASH guide PDFs are packed with tips to make it all easier.
Eating out: Difficult, since restaurant meals are notoriously salty, oversized and fatty. If you do dine out, NHLBI suggests avoiding salt by shunning pickled, cured or smoked items; limiting condiments; choosing fruits or vegetables instead of soup; and requesting the chef find other ways to season your meal.
U.S. News rankings rate how easy 38 diets are to follow. How much weight should you give this?
Alcohol: Too much can elevate blood pressure and damage the liver, brain and heart. If you drink, do so in moderation – that’s one drink a day for women, two a day for men. (A drink is considered 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1 1/2 ounces of liquor.)
Timesavers: None, unless you hire somebody to plan your meals, shop for them and prepare them. And you can’t pay someone to exercise for you.
Extras: NHLBI’s PDF guide serves up a week of DASH meal plans, offers tips on reading nutrition labels, lists the sodium and potassium content of various foods and provides exercise ideas.
Fullness: Nutrition experts stress the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. DASH emphasizes lean protein and fiber-filled fruits and veggies, which should keep you feeling full, even if you’ve reduced your calorie level slightly to support weight loss.
Taste: Although you may miss salty popcorn and potato chips, your taste buds should eventually adjust. Avoid blandness by getting friendly with herbs and spices.
Health & Nutrition
The panelists applauded the DASH plan for its nutritional soundness and safety. Endorsed by the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services, the diet is packed with produce and light on saturated fat and salt.
What is the role of exercise?
Recommended, especially if you want to lose weight.
[Read: The Case for Exercising Alone.]
To get started, try a 15-minute walk around the block each morning and night, and then slowly ratchet up intensity and duration if you can. Just find activities you like (jazzercise, swimming, gardening), set goals and stick to them.