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Diets

The DASH Diet: What It Is, Why It Works and More

The DASH diet is commonly prescribed to those who are lowering their blood pressure — here's what dieters should know about it.

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Most of us remember ’90s diet culture: In addition to promoting unattainably skinny bodies, it was also largely dedicated to all things low-fat. A lot of research since then has taught us more about healthy fats, but people with certain conditions are strongly encouraged to adhere to a low-fat diet for medical reasons.

Those who are at risk of hypertension (or high blood pressure) are sometimes medically advised to follow the DASH diet. DASH is an eating plan that primarily focuses on avoiding fatty meats, high fat dairy, saturated fats, sweets, sodium and other types of refined sugars, all of which can improve blood pressure.

DASH Stands for ‘Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension’

A person in a striped button down has their blood pressure measured by a doctor
Doctors prescribe the DASH diet with the intention to lower people’s blood pressure.Hello Lovely/Getty Images

Geared toward helping people manage hypertension, the DASH diet was created by the National Institute of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHBLI) in 1997, according to a guide from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. According to doctors, eating primarily fruits and vegetables, seeds and legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean proteins — while avoiding fat and cholesterol — helps control these health issues.

It’s All About the Vitamins

Woman’s World spoke with Maria Pari-Keener, MS RDN CDN, to discuss the science behind why the DASH diet helps prevent these symptoms. Ultimately, the benefits are mostly derived from vitamins that come from the types of food that are permitted.

“The Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension or DASH diet is rich in potassium, magnesium and calcium, which are nutrients thought to lower blood pressure,” Pari-Keener says. “It is a diet low in sodium but emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans, and low-fat dairy. Fish, chicken and lean meats are the main protein source.”

Related: One Big Reason to Consider a More Plant-Based Diet

Studies Have Shown the DASH Diet Is Effective in Lowering Blood Pressure

Young woman loads a variety of fruit into a blender, in order to make a smoothie
Fruit-forward meals such as smoothies are DASH-friendly.JupiterImages/Getty Images

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute studied a group of 459 people. A smaller group of them followed the DASH diet, another group followed an average American diet, and a third group followed an average American diet, with added fruits and vegetables. After eight weeks, the first and third group had lower blood pressure than those in the second group, who followed a typical American diet. The first group had the lowest blood pressure altogether.

DASH Can Also Result in Weight Loss

And even though the DASH diet doesn’t aim primarily for weight loss, it often results in weight loss. This is because it reduces consumption of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and salt.

The DASH Diet Emphasizes Fruits and Vegetables, too

“The DASH diet is a healthful way to eat as it encourages minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables and nuts,” Pari-Keener says, in relation to why it helps with high blood pressure. “The suggestion is four to five servings of fruits and four to five servings of vegetables per day! That is way more than the average American consumes… Portion control is a factor in the diet too. For example, nuts are encouraged, but not unlimited.”

Related: This 30 Plants a Week Hack Helped One Woman Lose 227 lbs — How It Can Work for You

DASH Works Quickly to Improve Blood Pressure

An older woman checks her blood pressure while on a video call with her doctor
Blood pressure is the major focus of the DASH diet.SilviaJansen/Getty Images

The DASH diet doesn’t take long to work. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada reported on a study which showed the diet can lower blood pressure levels within just two weeks. It also notes that by losing just five pounds, levels can lower exponentially. So if opting for less fats, more fruits and vegetables, and whole grains over simple starches lowers your BMI, that will also help.

Megan Lee, RD, of Gabi Meltzer Dietitian explains why the regimen works so quickly: “The DASH diet, if adhered to, can lower systolic blood pressure (the pressure when the heart contracts) by six to 11 millimeters of mercury,” she explains. “It may also result in weight loss, reduced LDL-cholesterol levels and a reduction in risk for heart attack and stroke. “

Over Time, DASH Diet Can Also Prevent Heart Disease and Gout

An older couple preparing a heart-healthy meal together
The DASH diet also benefits heart health.Anchiy/Getty Images

While the main point of the DASH diet is to lower blood pressure, the resulting weight loss can also stave off cardiovascular issues. Very Well Fit‘s analysis of the diet emphasizes one of the lesser known benefits of the DASH diet includes weight loss, which results in a lowered risk for cardiovascular problems such as heart disease.

Maria Pari-Keener also notes that research shows DASH reduces the risk of gout in men, which is linked to the benefit of weight loss.

The Amount of Effort DASH Takes Can Make It Difficult to Stick To

Even though much of the food required for the DASH diet is easy to find at any local grocery store, the American diet is now primarily heavily processed foods, which usually contain high levels of sodium and fat. So for some, it may be quite different than what they are used to eating.

Healthy Options Are Often Less Convenient

Woman decides between a salad or a cupcake
Choosing the healthier option can be less accessible.Stephen Welstead/Getty Images

In a world of fast food and packaged snacks, eating healthy isn’t always easy. So, when dieters are on the go, sticking to DASH may require more effort. “The diet may be challenging for people in the beginning, but once they modify their shopping lists and maybe their recipes, it will be easy to follow,” Pari-Keener says.

Each day you should consume six to eight servings of grains, six ounces or less of lean meat or fish, four to five servings of fruit, four to five servings of vegetables, two to three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy, two to three servings of heart-healthy oils/fats and stay under 2,300 milligrams sodium.

In addition you should eat four to five servings of nuts/seeds or beans weekly. The lower numbers would be for women, while the higher numbers are for men.

Maria Pari-Keener

DASH Dieting Isn’t Necessarily Budget-Friendly, Either

Unfortunately, like most diets that require an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, a DASH dieter’s grocery haul is likely going to be higher than the average American’s. Heavily processed foods, simple starches, and low-quality meats generally tend to be cheaper than a healthy week’s worth of groceries.

There Are Ways to Adhere to the Diet on a Budget

Person holding grocery bag and receipt
Shopping on a budget for the DASH diet is possible, but it takes additional effort.Burke/Triolo Productions/Getty Images

It just requires getting creative. Megan Lee recommends buying seasonal, frozen, or canned produce, as it’s often less expensive than buying organic, out-of-season fruits and veggies. Choosing cheaper lean proteins like eggs or tinned salmon is also an option.

Tips to Adhere to the Diet on a Budget

Lee has listed a few tips below to follow the DASH Diet on a budget. Although it won’t be as cheap as purchasing junk food, it will be better, in the long run:

  1. Make use of frozen fruit and vegetables. If you notice they are not going to be eaten before the best before date, chop them up, freeze them, and use later in a smoothie or soup.
  2. Cook your meals yourself. This almost always works out to be cheaper per portion.
  3. Plan ahead and make use of what you have at home.
  4. Buy shelf stable products in bulk to save a buck.
  5. Buy the fruits and vegetables that are on sale – this invites variety!

Related: The Foods Celebrities Swear By To Make Their Skin Look Younger

Overall, Quality of Life on the DASH Diet Is Relatively High

Fortunately, the DASH diet doesn’t involve a major calorie cut, or avoiding an entire food group such as carbohydrates, as many diets tend to do. Therefore, adhering to the DASH diet generally doesn’t make dieters feel ill or as though they are missing out on certain nutrients. In fact, consuming more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may in turn make you feel better than they did before.

“One should feel great on the diet as these healthful foods will be replacing saltier, fattier, sugary versions so you should have more energy,” Pari-Keener adds. “People should be realistic and not beat themselves up if they have French fries while out with friends.”

Sticking To DASH May Involve More Planning

Two big plates of fresh green salads
Meal prep is an important part of DASH dieting.Anne DEL SOCORRO/Getty Images

Going out for fast food may not be an option for the time being, and that XL bag of buttered movie popcorn may be for another day. But staying healthy with a prescribed regimen such as the DASH diet sometimes means sacrificing some unhealthy habits. And in turn, that is going to be for the best.

DASH Is Great for Those Who Need It

Although DASH might not be what everyone needs, it’s seemingly useful for those dealing with issues related to high blood pressure. It’s an overall healthy diet, and although it can be difficult to stick to, it comes with a myriad of long-lasting health benefits.

How long does it take to see results on the DASH diet?

Some dieters end up seeing results through bloodwork within a matter of weeks on the DASH diet. But it depends on body type and how closely someone sticks to the diet — among other factors.

What are the risks of going on the DASH diet?

Although the diet is relatively non-invasive, dieters should consult with a doctor about going on the diet to lower their blood pressure. There may be other diets that are more tailored to someone’s needs.

How long should someone stay on the DASH diet?

Although the DASH diet comes with few risks, one should speak with a doctor before continuing to adhere to it. Frequent check-ins, especially when dealing with issues such as hypertension are crucial.

Does the DASH diet help with weight loss?

Even though the goal of the DASH diet is to address hypertension, weight loss is often a benefit. Because it has dieters reducing fat and sugar consumption, it often leads to weight loss.

Are cheat days allowed on the DASH diet?

While the diet isn’t as strict as keto regarding cheat days, straying from the diet, particularly when it is medically prescribed, isn’t recommended. But that may be something to discuss with a medical professional.

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