Proven Health Benefits of the DASH Diet
Caitlin Guess, MPH, RDN/LDN, CDCES
The DASH eating plan was introduced over 25 years ago by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to help people lower their blood pressure with foods that taste good. DASH stands for Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension, and the eating plan includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, lean proteins (poultry, fish, and beans), low-fat dairy products, and vegetable oils. The DASH eating plan works well for lowering blood pressure, with many people seeing lower numbers in two weeks! Making the change to a DASH-based lifestyle helps with the lowering and maintenance of blood pressure, and provides many other health benefits.
Over the years, ongoing research has shown numerous other health benefits from the DASH diet including a decreased risk of:
- High LDL (bad) cholesterol
- Heart disease, heart failure, and kidney disease
- Colon and rectal cancers
- Insulin resistance and diabetes
- Kidney stones and gout
A unique aspect of DASH is the focus on foods high in potassium (fruits and vegetables), magnesium (nuts and leafy greens), and calcium (dairy and leafy greens) for blood pressure control and overall cardiovascular protection. Adequate potassium helps relax blood vessel walls, keeping the arterial walls from getting hard and easier to clog. Magnesium helps balance out sodium and calcium and promotes a strong healthy heartbeat. Calcium helps muscles and nerves function properly, blood to clot properly, and the heart to beat normally. While these nutrients typically work better from food rather than supplements, you should talk to your health care provider or dietitian about what works best for your individual needs.
The DASH plan is lower in sodium, animal fat, and added sugars. The standard DASH plan recommends 2300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, which is the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of salt. A lower-salt version of DASH recommends 1500 mg or ¾ teaspoon of added salt. It is important to read nutrition labels when following this plan to limit high sodium intake from processed foods. Red meat and processed meat (beef, pork, lunch meat, bacon, sausage, etc.) are also limited, as well as coconut and palm oils. DASH recommends five or less servings per week of sweets such as candy, dessert, or sugary drinks.
Instead of being restrictive, DASH provides a balanced, flexible eating plan and a wide variety of delicious, nutritious foods. The health benefits make this eating plan a favorite of many health experts and a great option to consider on your health journey.
What does a DASH eating plan look like? Here are a few examples:
- Breakfast – High-fiber cereal with low fat milk topped with fruit and nuts, or peanut butter toast on whole grain bread topped with sliced bananas
- Lunch – Turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with a side of fruit, or a large salad with chicken or salmon and whole grain crackers
- Supper – Grilled chicken, baked sweet potato, and green beans, or spaghetti with ground turkey, whole wheat noodles, and roasted broccoli
- Snacks – A handful of unsalted nuts with fruit, or whole grain crackers with low fat cheese and fruit
When moving to a DASH eating plan, it’s important to focus on sustainable changes over time as opposed to an all-or-nothing mentality. Implement one nutrition change, and once it is a part of your routine, add another change. Focus on the DASH foods you like and eat more of those foods, wean down from added salt and processed foods, add a meatless meal each week, or aim to include a fruit or vegetable at most meals and snacks.
Taste buds do adapt to a lower salt diet over time. Simple goals to choose from are to leave off added salt at the table, explore salt-free seasonings like Mrs. Dash, herbs, and spices, use less salt in cooking, or eat less processed foods that are high in sodium. Rinsing regular canned veggies, choosing plain frozen or low-salt canned veggies, and purchasing fresh produce in season can all help decrease sodium and save money.
High-fiber foods including fruits, veggies, and whole grains protect the heart but can cause gas and bloating if added too quickly. Add a few-high fiber foods at a time and give your body time to adapt. Proper hydration is important for the heart and digestive systems and drinking adequate water each day keeps these systems working properly.
Make DASH foods accessible, do what works for your budget and lifestyle, and include the entire family in the plan. Instead of judging foods as good or bad, make a plan to add treats, traditional, or fun foods and meals once or twice a month to avoid feeling deprived. It can be a challenge to make lifestyle changes, but research shows even moderate changes lead to health benefits. Any DASH change is a step to improve your health!
Caitlin Guess is a registered dietitian nutritionist at The Diabetes Institute located at the HopeHealth Medical Plaza in Florence. She is passionate about teaching clients how to use nutrition and healthy behaviors for disease management and health promotion. For more information visit hope-health.org or call (843) 667-9414.