What Is the DASH Diet? Tips for Beginners from a Real Person

A diagnosis of high blood pressure inspires a change to the DASH diet.

A few years ago, Linda Jones’ health care provider diagnosed her with high blood pressure, which happens to run in her family.

High blood pressure is a condition afflicting more than 100 million people in the U.S. The official threshold for high blood pressure is 130/80 mmHg, according to the American Heart Association. The first number, your systolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart is beating, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The second number, your diastolic blood pressure, is the measurement of the pressure in your arteries between beats, when your heart is resting.

High blood pressure is a risk factor for a number of health issues, including:

Brain damage caused by stroke.

Heart disease.

Stroke.

Vision loss.

To get her blood pressure under control, Linda Jones, 73, decided to change her diet. But which eating regimen would be right for her?

Step one to finding a healthier eating regimen: Do some research.

You can find lots of solid information about effective and sustainable diets with an online search or by consulting with a registered dietitian. Linda employed the latter strategy and sought the advice of a registered dietitian — her daughter, Lisa Jones, who’s a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia.

“I asked her advice,” Linda Jones says. “She suggested the DASH diet. She helped me make small changes to how I was eating, and reduced salt and sweets in my diet.” A panel of U.S. News experts ranked the DASH diet — which stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension — No. 2 overall (tied with the flexitarian diet) on the U.S. News 2022 Best Diets Overall list.

Recommending the DASH diet was an easy call, Lisa Jones says. “DASH diet is a great way for those who have been diagnosed with high blood pressure to prevent (health complications) and treat themselves by eating healthy,” she says.

Adopting the DASH diet has worked for Linda. Before she changed her diet, her blood pressure was typically in the 140/90 range. Linda says she started feeling better within weeks of starting the DASH diet, and today, her blood pressure is typically in the healthy 120/80 range.

What does research say about DASH diet?

Research suggests the DASH diet is a healthy eating regimen that protects your health in an array of ways.

For example, a review of studies published in 2021 in StatPearls, which calls itself the largest library of medical education in the world, concluding by suggesting the DASH diet is associated with lowering:

— Blood pressure.

— The risk of adverse cardiac events.

— Stroke.

Type 2 diabetes.

Obesity.

Research published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition in 2019 concluded that the DASH diet “might be the most effective dietary approach to improve blood pressure in pre-hypertensive and hypertensive patients based on high-quality evidence.” The meta-analysis involved 67 clinical trials and more than 17,200 patients.

DASH diet basics

The DASH diet was developed by researchers funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

There’s no specific DASH diet food list of the kind you might find in some commercial diets. “But rather the DASH diet is rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains. It also includes fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans and nuts — all while limiting foods that are high in saturated fat,” says Amy Kimberlain, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator based in Miami who’s a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Here are the types of foods and the daily consumption amounts recommended by the DASH diet:

— Fat-free or low-fat dairy, four to five servings a day.

Fruits and vegetables, four to five servings daily.

— Whole grains, six to eight servings a day.

— Lean protein, 6 or fewer ounces daily.

The diet calls for low salt consumption, with a maximum of 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams a day. The DASH diet also recommends moderate alcohol consumption, two drinks a day for men and one for women.

The importance of sustainability

Before she adopted the DASH diet, Linda Jones tried the Nutrisystem diet, which is ranked No. 24 in U.S. News Best Diets Overall.

The Nutrisystem approach initially requires you to sign up for a specific program, then select and purchase your meals and snacks from a Nutrisystem menu. After the first week, you have the opportunity to create “flex meals”: Two times a week, customers will swap out their Nutrisystem breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack with a breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack using grocery foods, says Karen Kerwick, a Nutrisystem representative. The object is to practice healthy cooking to help prepare you for life after being on the Nutrisystem program. Nutrisystem supports customers by providing guidance on how to build those plates, ensuring they include nutrient-rich veggies, smart and fiber-filled carbohydrates, and lean proteins, all in the right portions to support weight management.

“I liked it but it felt like a diet, and I knew it was going to be more expensive than preparing my own meals,” Linda says. “Following the DASH diet, I don’t feel like I am on a diet. It feels like a lifestyle to me, and that is what I was looking for.”

One of DASH diet’s strengths is its sustainability, says Kaylee Jacks, a sports dietitian with Texas Health Sports Medicine in Dallas. “DASH diet is sustainable because it does not eliminate any healthful nutrients or foods, which allows someone to maintain a balanced, nutrient-dense diet from a large variety of food options,” she says.

Here are seven tips that helped Linda Jones stay with the DASH diet:

1. Find alternatives to your usual treats.

Linda loves sweets — cakes, cookies, chocolate — the usual calorie-laden, diet-busting suspects. To avoid feeling deprived, she developed alternatives she could substitute for her usual treats so she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out. Instead of a piece of cheesecake, now she’ll “enjoy plain vanilla yogurt with cut-up pineapple.” Her alternative treat is tasty and satisfying but contains far fewer calories and fat.

2. Try the 90-10 approach.

Linda has found that adhering to the “90-10” approach, rather than trying to stay on the DASH diet every day, is effective. She sticks to the DASH diet 90% of the time, but doesn’t aim for perfection. “I do make exceptions on days like birthdays and holidays to enjoy a special dessert,” she says. “If I am following DASH 90% of the time, I am doing what needs to be done to keep my blood pressure in check.”

3. Stay active.

Walking regularly and cleaning the house keeps Linda active — and has helped keep her blood pressure at healthy levels. That, in turn, has kept her motivated to remain vigilant about the DASH diet, she says.

Research suggests that physical activity not only helps you maintain a healthy weight, it can lower your blood pressure. The federal government recommends that adults engage in at least two hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate to intense exercise, which can include brisk walking or bicycling.

4. Study restaurant menus.

Dining out could pose a challenge to staying on the DASH diet, since many restaurants offer items high in salt, sugar, fat and calories. But many of these eateries also have healthier alternatives. “I have found that looking at the menu online ahead, planning what I’m going to eat and watching portion sizes helps keep my salt intake where it should be,” Linda says.

When dining out, Lisa Jones recommends asking to have no salt added to your meal. Try to avoid restaurant-prepared soups, which may be higher in sodium content than you’d like, at a level that can’t be adjusted. Keep in mind that in general, sandwiches, pizza, salad dressings and cured meats will have a higher sodium content. For your salad, ask for oil and vinegar versus restaurant dressings, which could have more sodium than you want.” Some restaurants list nutritional values, including sodium content, for their meals. Read those values closely, and keep in mind that the daily limit for sodium content under the DASH diet is 2,300 milligrams a day.

Some restaurants offer “better for you” options, which are typically lower in fat, calories and sodium than other meals, and are worth considering, Kimberlain says.

“My general recommendation when eating out is to ask how foods are prepared,” Kimberlain says. “Ask if they if they can be prepared without salt, or salt-containing ingredients. Most restaurants are willing to accommodate when they’re able to.”

Also, be on the lookout for terms that suggest a menu item has a high sodium content: cured, pickled and smoked. Soy sauce and broths are typically high in sodium.

“Aim to move the salt shaker away from you and don’t add any salt to your meal,” she says. “While you’re at it, limit the condiments, like mustard, ketchup, pickles and sauces, as those are often hidden sources of sodium as well.”

5. Manage your restaurant portions.

At many sit-down restaurants, meal portions are quite large. “They’re usually enough for two people,” Linda notes. So, she typically eats half of the meal, then has her server box the other half to take home for lunch the next day. Watching portion size also helps her keep her salt intake where it should be.

6. Experiment with new recipes.

“I like to cook and experiment with new recipes, which helps me to eat most of my meals at home. We (Linda and her husband) do eat a salad and vegetable at dinner every night. It’s a work in progress, and every meal is a new opportunity to watch my salt consumption.”

Trying out different recipes of DASH diet foods also helps keep the eating regimen interesting.

7. Choose healthy snacks.

Many processed snacks — like chips and beef jerky — are high in salt. Other processed foods — such as candies, cakes and cookies — are loaded with sugar and calories. Rather than noshing on DASH diet-busting processed foods, Linda opts for fresh fruits and veggies, which are lower in calories and salt and packed with nutrients.

Lisa Jones recommends these healthy snacks:

Nuts. For a convenient and crunchy snack, it’s hard to beat a handful of nuts, she says. Almonds, cashews, walnuts and peanuts are just a few of many choices. Opt for unsalted nuts, to keep your sodium consumption down. Also keep in mind that nuts are high in calories, so limit your consumption to about 1 ounce for a snack.

Greek yogurt. If you’re in the mood for a creamy snack, try Greek yogurt, which is low in calories and full of calcium, protein and probiotics. For an extra punch of protein, mix Greek yogurt with tuna and place the mixture on a stalk of celery or atop a brown rice cake.

Hard-boiled eggs. An oldie but a goodie, hard-boiled eggs are a great source of protein, and the yolk provides a high quantity of choline, which is important for brain health, Jones says. “Add a mashed avocado, and put it on wheat pita creamy and savory snack,” she says.

Raw vegetables. Raw artichokes, beets, broccoli, carrots, celery and zucchini are great, healthy snacks for anyone, Jones says. “They’re low in calories and fat, which makes them the perfect food on-the-go. You can eat raw veggies straight in their natural state, or add cheese and wheat crackers for a crunchy and savory snack.”

Kimberlain recommends several snack combos, including:

— Banana and peanut butter.

— Low-sodium Swiss cheese with an apple.

— Mixed berries with yogurt.

— Hummus and veggies.

To recap, here are seven tips for success from a DASH dieter:

— Find alternatives to your usual treats.

— Try the 90-10 approach.

— Stay active.

— Study restaurant menus.

— Manage your restaurant portions.

— Experiment with new recipes.

— Choose healthy snacks.

More from U.S. News

11 Healthy, Low-Calorie Snacks

13 Healthy Desserts That Are Tasty

Healthy Staples You Should Always Have in Your House

What Is the DASH Diet? Tips for Beginners from a Real Person originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 07/20/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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