The National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute created and studied the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet in the early 1990′s. The study started in August 1993 and ended in July 1997. Results were good. They tweaked the diet a bit, reducing the sodium to 1500mg a day instead of the original 2300mg. This second study lasted from September 1997 to November 1999. Results were even better so the NHLBI recommended it to people with high blood pressure. The diet reduces sodium, red meat, sugar, processed foods, saturated fat and total fat while emphasizing fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains. It also recommends the inclusion of nuts, seeds and dried beans, peas or lentils. I remember reading about the DASH Diet on the NHLBI website in the mid 2000′s. It seemed like a good idea to me, but I wasn’t ready to make the changes it required. Still, I saved the recipe PDF’s to my hard drive.
Then, in 2011 the DASH Diet obtained rock star status when the US News & World Report ranked it #1 in their comparison of 25 popular diets. In 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 the DASH diet again ranked #1.
DASH was developed to fight high blood pressure, not as an all-purpose diet. But it certainly looked like an all-star to our panel of experts, who gave it high marks for its nutritional completeness, safety, ability to prevent or control diabetes, and role in supporting heart health. Though obscure, it beat out a field full of better-known diets.
The DASH Diet wasn’t designed for weight-loss, but soon people discovered that it worked very well for not only weight-loss but diabetes control, heart health and high cholesterol in addition to it’s original purpose, to lower high blood pressure. Since it’s gained popularity, there is more information about it online. If you go to the NHLBI’s website “Your Guide To Lowering High Blood Pressure” you’ll find a lot more information about the DASH Diet including several nice PDF booklets to download.
From my perspective the DASH Diet is good because it recommends we eat as few processed foods as possible. Processed foods cost more than plain whole foods, so this bit of economy is built in from the start. I like that it emphasizes whole grains, fruits, veggies, beans and non-fat or low-fat dairy. Even if we do nothing else, if we just tried to do those things, our health would improve. I think the diet is easy to adapt to a small grocery budget. There aren’t any costly supplements, specialty foods, meetings, books or appointments required. It’s possible to fit almost any cultural preferences into it, including good Southern Soul Food, which is my personal preference. It seems pretty family friendly too, which is of vital necessity when you cook for a family, and not just for yourself. Lastly, the DASH diet seems like it would accommodate allergies with relative ease. For my family I can simply use gluten-free grains and products in place of the conventional variety. The same can be applied to dairy. Use soymilk and vegan cheese in place of dairy milk and cheese.
The only small complaint I have is that the DASH diet combines its recommendations of nuts and seeds with dried beans, suggesting that they be eaten only a few times a week. While nuts and seeds are very healthy foods, I believe it’s reasonable to limit their use to a small portion daily, or larger portion (1-1/2 oz) a few times a week. Dried beans, peas and lentils, on the other hand, can be eaten daily. Doing so will not damage one’s health; on the contrary, this habit would only improve one’s good health.
I also wish that the official version had a vegetarian example. I’m not vegetarian. I eat some fish and poultry. A vegetarian version of the DASH diet would be very helpful though, as I could just add in a fish or chicken dinner or lunch when I felt like it and otherwise follow the vegetarian recommendations. Maybe that will be available one day. Meanwhile I adapt my own diet to follow the DASH recommendations, because they seem quite sensible and realistic to me.
DASH Diet Recommendations for a 1,600 calorie diet
Grains: 6 servings daily, choose whole grains most often.
Vegetables: 3 to 4 servings daily, choose fresh when possible, or plain frozen products, with no added sodium, or low-sodium canned products.
Fruits: 4 servings daily, choose fresh when possible, plain frozen or sugar-free canned. Dried fruit is also an option, watch for added sugar.
Fat-free or Low-Fat Dairy: 2 to 3 servings daily, choose non-fat milk and low-fat or fat-free cheese
Lean Meats, Fish, Poultry & Eggs: 3 to 6 ounces daily, choose lean items with no visible fat; egg whites are preferred over whole eggs; 2-egg whites equal 1-ounce of meat. (From Maggie–I assume the wide range in this category means 3 ounces (daily) of beef or pork OR 6 ounces (daily) of fish, egg whites or chicken breasts.)
Nuts, Seeds & Legumes: 3 servings a week or 1/2 a serving a day. One serving equals 1-1/2 ounces nuts or 1/2-ounce seeds or 2-tablespoons nut butter or 1/2-cup cooked peas, beans or lentils (From Maggie–I believe the servings of beans can be increased to as often as 1-cup a day with only good results)
Fats & Oils: 2 servings daily, a serving is 1-teaspoon oil or margarine (trans-fat free) or mayonnaise, or 1-tablespoon salad dressing or low-fat mayonnaise. Choose olive oil or canola oil when possible.
Sweets & Added Sugars: Zero servings daily. The DASH diet does not recommend the use of artificial sweeteners. (From Maggie–I would like to add that Stevia seems to me to be a reasonable low-calorie sweetener to use on the DASH diet. Other all-natural low-calorie sweeteners may be worth considering.)
In addition keep the following in mind:
- Limit sodium to 2300mg a day. If you have diabetes or at risk for high blood pressure aim for 1500mg.
- Limit cholesterol to 150mg a day.
- No more than 10% of your total fat intake should be saturated.
- Aim for 30mg of fiber a day. (From Maggie–All those whole grains, fruits and veggies make this one pretty easy.)
The Bottom Line
I’ve battled obesity since the birth of my second child. Mine came on partly due to health complications, such as insulin resistance from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and partly due to simple overeating. I’ve tried dozens of diets over the years and never had much success. The “dieting mentality” would take me over and I would rebel against my food plan, usually within a day, almost always within the week. When I have lost weight it was from following the old Diabetic Exchange Plan. I believe it is one of the most nutritionally sound. I think the DASH diet combines well with the Exchange Plan, building on it by suggesting portions from each of the food groups. In my mind they dovetail into one another quite nicely.
In August of 2013 I got serious about my weight and joined a Christian weight loss group based on the 12 steps. It has helped immeasurably. At that time I had to choose an eating plan that I felt I could stick with for the rest of my life. After a month of very careful consideration I chose the DASH diet. It seemed the most nutritionally sound and I liked that there was so much scientific research to back up it’s claims. It also seemed moderate to me. It didn’t omit any food groups, simply directed me to the best choices within the groups.
At the time of this writing I’m almost halfway to my goal weight. I’m still obese, but less so than in times past, and I left morbid obesity behind me 50-pounds ago. For the most part I’ve followed the 1600 Calorie DASH diet as I’ve lost weight. I haven’t followed it perfectly, and there have been days when I tried other diets, and even a few meals when I didn’t follow any food plan at all. I’m not perfect, but I keep trying.
I keep coming back to DASH because it works best for my lifestyle. I can stick to my budget. I can adapt it to my family’s needs–specifically gluten-free and dairy-free. We simply use soymilk instead of dairy milk and gluten-free grains instead of wheat. I try to provide a minimum of 2-vegetable servings at lunch and dinner (or dinner and supper in our case), often more. We have fresh veggies and fruits for snacks throughout the day. Breakfast includes at least 1-serving of fruit and usually 2. Since dried beans and chicken are both so cheap, they are easy for us to include in our diet.
The hardest part for my family is limiting meat portions. We don’t eat meat at every meal, or even every day, but when we do, it’s not unusual to have larger portions than recommended. I’m not a big meat eater and neither is my oldest son, so for us, this isn’t such a challenge. For my youngest son and husband however, 3-ounces of chicken seems a lowly portion.
The hardest part for me personally is limiting egg-yolks. It’s just so much easier to use whole eggs than separate eggs for egg whites. Cartons of egg whites make it easier, although they cost a little more than separating them myself. Also, I’m not convinced that the cholesterol in egg yolks is the evil that some health experts would have us believe. Still, to stay under 150mg of cholesterol a day, egg whites become a necessity. As I have both high triglycerides and high cholesterol, I eat a lot more egg whites than I used to. This is one area I still need to work on.
I’ve found that the DASH 1600 calorie plan does not leave me the least bit hungry. In point of fact, it provides more food than I can comfortably eat some days. The DASH diet is, I believe, probably one of the best alternatives for people who are trying to stick to a tight budget and eat as healthy a diet as possible. It’s ideal for long term use and for treating chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease. Plus it tastes pretty good and is (for me at least) relatively easy to stick to.
Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. 3 John 1:2