Should you switch to the DASH Diet?
I’ve been seeing a lot of references to the DASH diet – rated the #1 diet for four years in a row by the US News and World Report, and on World Hypertension Day, I feel compelled to explore it further and perhaps, even follow it.
DASH stands of Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension – which is probably the best way to go, rather than reach for prescription medications as a first step.
Incidentally, the DASH diet is a good practice to follow even if you do not have hypertension, and I’ll tell you why. It helps you lose weight and keeps you healthier – two things we can all use. It helps balance blood pressure and cholesterol levels and keeps the heart healthy. Can’t see anyone saying “no” to that.
Getting started with the DASH Diet
As a type 2 diabetic, I am open to any healthy route that can help me lower blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure: three things I need to absolutely take care of to stay healthy. I am glad to see that there will be lots of vegetables, fruits and low fat dairy products, while naturally minimizing fats, cholesterol-rich food and sweets. This looks good to me as I have the same diet goals.
The DASH diet focuses on a diet rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, protein and potassium through cutting down on salt, fats and sweets, getting enough grains and fruits and vegetables – all of which promotes heart health and weight management, which are irrevocably linked.
The way I see it, the DASH Diet is not difficult to follow, although you might have to make changes. Maybe you’ll want to keep a food journal for a few days to see how you can tweak your existing diet to make it healthier. One needs approximately 2000 calories per day but do check with your physician to know your specific requirements, based on your own health and your activity levels.
The DASH Diet
Let’s look at what the DASH Diet advises, and why, in a little more detail:
Cutting salt from the diet
Even in a normal diet, the less salt you consume, and the better. Excess salt results in water retention in the body, increasing the pressure on the heart. In case you didn’t know, that’s indirect pressure on the kidneys as well! The DASH Diet recommends between 2300 to 1500 milligrams of salt per day, depending on your calorie intake, your health, ethnicity and age. Easier said than done, eh? You can cut salt by:
- Going in for low or no-sodium foods, ingredients and snacks
- Look out for foods that are cured, smoked or pickled – these are your salt bombs
- Go easy on processed foods – these need a lot of salt to increase their shelf life
Whole Grains for fiber
Whole grains are rich in fiber and including them in your diet helps lower cholesterol levels and keeps you full longer. Sources are whole wheat breads, brown rice, whole grain cereals, oatmeal, whole wheat pasta and popcorn. Portion control is critical, though. So for a daily calorie allowance of 2000 calories, you will need around 6-8 servings per day. A serving equals 1 slice of bread, 1 ounce of dry cereal, half a cup of cooked whole wheat pasta/rice/oatmeal. I recommend sprouts.
More veggies for fiber, vitamins and minerals
The great thing about vegetables is that they are low calorie and low fat, which is good news for your blood pressure. Get your fiber, vitamins and minerals by loading up on veggies. About 4-5 servings per day is a good goal. Examples are: half a cup of cooked or raw veg, 1 cup of raw leafy veg, half a cup of veg juice. I always begin my lunch and dinner with a salad and a cooked veggie and that takes care of the day’s servings easily.
We know fruits are rich in fiber and vitamins. Most are rich in potassium and magnesium, which help control blood pressure. Get around 4-5 servings per day. A serving equals a medium-sized apple or orange or half a cup of frozen, fresh or canned fruit. You can also have half a cup of fruit juice or one-fourths cup of dried fruit, but fresh is always best. Some smart ways to get your fruit are by adding banana to your breakfast cereal or enjoying a fruit as dessert or snack.
To maintain healthy blood pressure levels, you need calcium and protein and good sources are low or no fat dairy products. About three servings a day is recommended. Sources are skimmed or 1% milk, buttermilk, low/no-fat cheese and yogurt. One serving is a cup of yogurt or milk, 1 and a half ounces of cheese.
Lean meats and fish
If you are a meat eater, go for lean. Meat, along with skinless chicken and fish are great sources of protein and magnesium. Stick to a maximum of 6 servings per day and not more than 3 ounces per meal. One serving equals 1 ounce of cooked meat, fish or poultry, or one egg. Restrict yourself to up to four egg yolks per week.
If like me, you are vegetarian, there are vegetarian meal plans offered by the dash diet.
Nuts, legumes and seeds
Rich in magnesium, protein and fiber, nuts, legumes and seeds lower your risk for heart disease. Include up to five servings per week. Walnuts are especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Other great options are flax seeds, sunflower seeds and almonds. Each serving can be 1/3 nuts, 2 tablespoons of seeds or ½ cup of cooked dried beans or peas. When you feel the urge to snack, grab a handful of seeds or nuts. You can also add beans to your salads and soups.
Limit fats and oils
As tasty as the fried stuff can be, too much fat and oil in the diet results in unhealthy cholesterol levels leading to heart disease. The DASH Diet recommends sticking to 2-3 servings of fats and oils per day. One serving is a teaspoon of margarine / vegetable oil, one tablespoon of mayonnaise or 2 tablespoons of low fat salad dressing. If you use butter for cooking, switch to vegetable oils such as olive or canola.
Slow down on the sweets
Restrict yourself to a maximum of five servings a week. This amounts to 1 tablespoon of sugar or jam, a cup of lemonade or ½ cup sorbet per serving. Go in for sweets that are low fat. Examples are gelatin, hard candy or maple syrup. Skip those high fat desserts for low fat ice cream or better still, fresh fruit.
One of the important ingredients in the DASH Diet is Potassium, which helps lower blood pressure. Preferably, get it from your diet rather than supplements or medication. The diet advises 4700 mg per day and good sources are potatoes, sweet potagoes, bananas, avocados, cooked spinach. I would add here that if you have a kidney condition, check with your doctor before you think of following this diet.
If you’d like to explore the DASH Diet, here are some books (Amazon affiliate links)