Getting Started: The DASH Diet
Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, is referred to as a “silent killer” because it can develop slowly over time without any signs or symptoms, meaning it can often go unnoticed. Hypertension has been linked to a number of other diseases and while it can be treated with medications, they can sometimes come with complications and side effects.
Rather than treating their hypertension with pills more and more people are adopting the DASH Diet, which has been proven to lower blood pressure naturally through healthy eating.
What is the DASH diet?
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and the diet was first developed in the 1990s with the help of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in order to treat high blood pressure. The DASH Diet is a balanced plan that incorporates large amounts of vegetables, fruits, low fat dairy products, and moderate amounts of whole grains, meats, nuts, legumes, and oils. The overall aim of the DASH diet is to increase one’s intake of nutrients like potassium, calcium, and magnesium and lower sodium intake as both of these changes have a positive effect on hypertension.
There are two types of DASH diets, the Standard DASH diet and the Low-Sodium DASH diet. The standard DASH diet follows the Dietary Guidelines for American’s sodium recommendation by allowing up to 2,300 mgs a day, while the Low-Sodium version abides by the American Heart Association’s recommendation of just 1,500 mgs a day. Both plans are known to be effective however the lower your sodium intake is, the more your blood pressure will fall. It’s best to consult with your doctor about which version of the DASH diet would best suit your needs.
Although the DASH diet has been known to lower blood pressure in as little as 14 days, it is viewed as a lifestyle change rather than a temporary diet and patients are encouraged to stay with the diet in order to continue managing their blood pressure. Since its development, the DASH diet has been endorsed by U.S. Department of Health, the American Heart Association, and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and has been named the number one diet by the U.S. News & World Report for eight consecutive years.
Who can benefit from the DASH diet?
It’s estimated that more than 75 million Americans suffer from high blood pressure, which is one in every three adults and only about half of them are thought to have their condition under control. Normal blood pressure levels are anything under 120/80 mmHg but a level that exceeds 140/90 mmHg is considered too high. If you are over the age of 65, have diabetes, smoke tobacco, don’t exercise often, eat a high sodium diet, frequently drink alcohol, or are obese, you are at a higher risk for developing hypertension and could benefit from switching to the DASH diet.
Over time, high blood pressure can do damage to your blood vessels and arteries which can eventually lead to a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or a stroke. If these types of issues run in your family or you’ve already suffered from a cardiovascular event in the past, the DASH diet could help prevent any further damage or strain to your system.
Finally because the DASH diet is rich in nutrients, minerals, and antioxidants and low in foods like red meats, processed foods, or high fat dairy, it is also thought to be beneficial to people suffering from various types of diseases like cancer or osteoporosis.
Foods to Eat on the DASH Diet
Fruits and Vegetables
The basis of any healthy diet is plenty of vegetables. Leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, and sweet potatoes are particularly good as they are packed with fiber and minerals like potassium and magnesium, which are known to help lower blood pressure. It’s recommended that followers of the DASH diet consume between four and five servings of vegetables a day which can sound like a lot if you’re not accustomed to a veggie laden diet, so it helps to get creative. Don’t just think of vegetables as a side dish, treat them like a main; adding veggies to stir-fries, pastas, and smoothies can help you fill up on the good stuff and eat less meat. Frozen or canned vegetables can also be used to help you save some time but be sure to choose products that don’t have too much added salt.
It’s also recommended that DASH dieters consume between four and five servings of fruit every day. Like vegetables, fruits are low in fat and high in nutrients and fiber and are an essential part of a healthy diet. It’s easy to fit in a banana at breakfast, an apple as an anytime snack, or some fresh berries as a healthy dessert at the end of a meal and you can choose between fresh, frozen, or canned so long as there is no added sugar. Try to leave the skin on whenever possible as it is usually packed with extra nutrients and fiber.
Unlike many other fad diets that shun carbs leaving you feeling hungry and cranky, the DASH diet focuses on incorporating healthy, whole grains which are chock full of fiber and can keep you feeling full. It’s recommended that you have between six to eight servings of whole grains each day in the form of cereals, brown breads, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, or ancient grains.
Just be sure that you’re choosing foods that are labeled as “whole grain” rather than being made with refined flours. Be careful not to fill up too much on grains though; a single serving is only about one slice of bread or ½ a cup of cooked rice or pasta.
Low Fat Dairy
Dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese are also a key part of the DASH diet as they are high in calcium, protein, and Vitamin D. It’s important however to choose dairy products that are low in fat to avoid adding saturated, unhealthy fats to your diet as they can increase your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. The DASH diet recommends that adults eat between two to three servings of low fat dairy like skim milk, cottage cheese, or yogurt every day.
Although it’s better to fill up on fruits and vegetables rather than meat, proteins are still a key part of the DASH diet as they are rich in B vitamins, iron, and zinc. It’s recommended that adults consume between three to six servings or a total of six ounces of lean meats a day.
Instead of choosing red meats that are high in saturated fats, try to focus on incorporating things like chicken, turkey, salmon, tuna, and herring. Fish is especially good for lowering your cholesterol and promoting overall health as it is high in omega-3 fatty acids. In order to keep your proteins on the healthier side, be sure to trim any skin or extra fat and opt for baking, grilling, or broiling rather than frying.
Nuts, Seeds and Legumes
Although the DASH diet emphasizes foods that are low in fat, this doesn’t mean that snacks like nuts and seeds are off the table. Not only do they make great on-the-go-snacks, they are typically high in healthy monosaturated fats and omega-3s. Since they do tend to be high in calories though, the DASH diet plan recommends keeping the serving sizes small and only consuming between four to five servings of nuts or seeds each week.
If you’re a vegetarian trying to cut back on your meat consumption, legumes like chickpeas and lentils or soybean products like tofu and tempeh are great alternatives to animal proteins.
Fats and Oils
Healthy fats are necessary to help strengthen your immune system and help your body absorb vitamins and minerals. It’s recommended that adults following the DASH diet consume around two to three servings of healthy fats a day whether it be from avocados, oils, or condiments like margarine and mayonnaise. Just be sure to avoid trans fats, which are commonly found in processed or packaged foods.
Foods to Avoid
The most important thing to avoid while following the DASH diet is sodium as it has a direct impact on your blood pressure. By focusing on clean, fresh foods prepared at home and avoiding take out, packaged, or processed foods, it’s quite easy to cut out added sodium from your diet. Eventually you will start to enjoy the taste of fresh foods and will find yourself reaching for the salt shaker less often than you used to.
While it’s not realistic to expect yourself to avoid sweets entirely, it’s a good idea to cut back on sugar while following the DASH diet. When you do enjoy sweets, try to opt for items that are low in fat or fat free and aim for no more than five servings or less of sugary treats per week.
Finally, alcohol is best avoided on the DASH diet as they can have a negative impact on your blood pressure, weight, and overall health. Caffeine consumption isn’t necessarily addressed by the DASH diet, but some people do find that it causes a temporary spike in their blood pressure so whether or not you choose to avoid it is up to you.
So, if you’d like to be kinder to your cardiovascular system and lower your blood pressure, talk to your doctor about the DASH diet and see if it’s right for you.