DASH Diet: Overview, Pros and Cons, Reviews and Results

For the sixth year in a row, the DASH diet has been crowned "the best diet in the world". Inspired by the vegetarian lifestyle, this food program promises uplifting results on the figure as well as on health. Unlike many diets, the DASH program was originally designed to prevent high blood pressure. But it didn't take years for the diet to appeal to people who wanted to lose weight. Indeed, it is a diet that prioritizes fruits and vegetables but bans saturated fats. Zoom on the DASH diet.

What exactly is the DASH diet?

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet was designed by the U.S. Institute of Health and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to do exactly what it's intended to do: stop or prevent high blood pressure. The program then focuses on foods we are always told to eat (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy products) as well as foods rich in nutrients that lower blood pressure such as potassium, calcium, protein and fiber.

As part of the DASH diet, however, it is not advisable to eat foods high in saturated fats, such as fatty meats, overly fatty dairy products and tropical oils, as well as sugary drinks and sweets. Adopting this diet also means capping your sodium intake at 2,300 mg per day, an amount that followers will eventually reduce to about 1,500 milligrams. You should know that the DASH diet is a balanced diet that can be adopted over the long term, which is one of the main reasons why nutrition experts rank it as one of the best diets in the world, on par with the Mediterranean diet.

How do I follow the DASH program?

The DASH diet focuses primarily on increasing vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. It also involves choosing lean meats, low-fat dairy products, nuts and healthy fats. There is also talk of limiting added sugars, trans fats, added salt and processed foods. The portions of each food group are based on individual caloric needs, hence the resemblance of the DASH diet to the MyPlate diet and the Mediterranean diet.

Recommended foods

The DASH diet recommends the following food groups:

  • fruits;
  • vegetables;
  • skimmed or semi-skimmed dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, cream…) ;
  • whole grains (bread, rice, pasta, quinoa, etc.) ;
  • fish;
  • lean meat and poultry;
  • legumes;
  • seeds and dried and nuts;
  • fats used in small quantities (rapeseed, walnut or olive oil, butter and margarine).

Foods to avoid

The DASH diet prohibits certain foods and beverages that contain too much sodium and sugars, as well as saturated fats. These include, in particular:

  • foods rich in sodium (cold cuts, cube broths, etc.);
  • foods and drinks rich in sugars (sweets, sweetened drinks, flavored yogurts…);
  • alcohol;
  • foods high in saturated fat (ready meals, fried foods, processed foods, etc.);
  • red meats.

As you can see, the secret to DASH's success lies in the focus on increasing vegetables, fruits and whole foods that are naturally low in sodium and high in potassium. While most people know that sodium reduction is essential, many do not realize that adequate potassium intake is just as essential for regulating blood pressure.

One thing to know is that when a food is processed, its potassium levels actually decrease. Thus, choosing whole or minimally processed foods can improve blood pressure regulation through sodium reduction and increased potassium. In addition, you will usually reduce your intake of saturated fats, added sugars and overall calories, which can help you lose weight and maintain it sustainably.

How does the DASH diet work?

Already, it should be known that starting the DASH diet does not require making radical changes overnight. Instead, you have to start by making the small changes that seem the easiest to manage. For example, remember that the DASH diet is based on the following foods: fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans and nuts. It is also recommended to reduce sodium, foods and drinks with added sugars and red meat. Note that the DASH diet is good for the heart because it limits saturated and trans fats, while increasing the intake of potassium, magnesium, calcium, protein and fiber, all nutrients that are supposed to help regulate blood pressure.

The diet suggests a specific number of servings of the recommended foods listed above. Sampling plans provided by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) are based on 1,600, 2,000 or 2,600 calories per day. For 2000 calories per day, this translates to about 6-8 servings of cereals or grain products, 4-5 servings of vegetables, 4-5 fruits, 2-3 low-fat dairy products, 2 servings of meat, poultry or fish, 2-3 servings of fats and oils and 4-5 servings of nuts, of seeds or dried beans per week. It is also advisable to limit sweets and added sugars to 5 servings or less per week. The plan defines the portions of each of these food groups.

To follow the DASH diet, one must decide on the ideal calorie intake and then distribute the suggested portions of each food group throughout the day. The program then requires meal planning in advance. The NHLBI guide provides many tips on how to integrate foods in order to reduce sodium intake. You will also find a menu of samples of one day after a restriction of 2300 mg of sodium and a restriction of 1500 mg of sodium as well as a week of recipes. The NHLBI also publishes an online database of "heart-healthy" recipes.

Daily calorie intake in a DASH diet

Admittedly, the DASH diet provides a little more calories than the recommendations of the National Health Nutrition Program. But despite this slightly high calorie intake, the DASH diet is still effective for weight loss. Indeed, the idea is to consume only the "right calories" and especially to adapt to the energy expenditure of the user.

Thus, according to the NHLBI recommends a caloric intake of:

  • 1,600 calories per day for a very sedentary person who does not engage in any physical activity;
  • 2,100 calories per day for a moderately active person;
  • and 2,600 calories per day for a person who engages in intense daily physical activity.

Is the DASH diet easy to follow?

It's not always easy to give up sweets and fatty foods, but the good news is that the DASH diet doesn't restrict entire food groups, which increases your chances of sticking to them in the long run.

Monitoring the DASH program is also quite convenient. The variations of culinary recipes are unlimited, especially since the NHLBI offers advice to optimize your food intake, especially on the reduction of sodium in meals. In addition, for those who want a little more flexibility, it is possible to replace unsaturated proteins or fats with a serving of daily carbohydrates while enjoying the benefits of DASH for heart health.

On the menu side, nhlbi offers more than 180 heart-healthy recipes in its online database. Otherwise, many reputable organizations in France and abroad provide long lists of DASH-compatible recipes.

In addition, by following the DASH diet, you do not have to always cook: you can eat at a restaurant with caution. Indeed, restaurant meals are notoriously salty, oversized and greasy, so you will have to be careful if you dine in this type of place. The sponsor of the DASH diet suggests avoiding salt by excluding pickled, salted or smoked foods, limiting condiments, choosing fruits or vegetables instead of other fatty dishes, and asking the chef to find other ways to season your meal. You can also drink alcohol moderately with the DASH diet.

DASH Diet: The Importance of Physical Activity

Of course, regular sports practice is a must as part of a DASH diet, especially if you want to lose weight. To get started, try a 15-minute walk around the block every morning and evening, then slowly increase the intensity and duration if you can. Just find activities you enjoy (swimming, running, hiking…), set goals and stick to them.

Scientific studies that prove the effectiveness of the DASH diet

Many studies support the effectiveness of the DASH program for health. A consistent body of research has shown that DASH lowers blood pressure in people with high blood pressure, even without lowering sodium intake. Indeed, this program can lead to further reduction in blood pressure if sodium is limited to less than 2300 mg per day, and even more with a restriction of 1500 mg of sodium. Compared to a conventional diet, the DASH diet also contributed to lower serum uric acid levels in people with hyper-uricemia, which puts them at risk of painful inflammation.

Following the DASH method may also contribute to the prevention of diabetes, as analyzed in a recent meta-analysis that was conducted in more than 3,700 people with kidney disease. Indeed, the foods recommended under the DASH contribute to the reduction of the renal risk, while an overconsumption of red meat and processed meats is likely to multiply this risk.

The advantages and disadvantages of the DASH diet

While the DASH diet was originally designed to combat hypertension, it provides many nutrients and a diet low in saturated fat to promote sustainable weight loss. Here are some of the benefits of this diet:

  • A program that relies on fruits and vegetables to provide the amount of fiber necessary for the body, generally too little consumed in a normal diet.
  • A diet that has demonstrated its effectiveness in reducing blood pressure and thus in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases.
  • A program that ensures sustainable weight loss, through the adoption of healthy eating habits for overweight people.

It turns out that the diet designed by the NHLBI is indeed effective in the prevention of hypertension and weight gain. However, since no diet is perfect for everyone, it's also important to talk about the downsides of the Dash diet before considering trying it.

  • A risk of exposure to the yo-yo effect: ANSES (National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety) has shown that any weight loss diet could lead to weight recovery in 80% of subjects subject to the diet. Indeed, the reduced energy intake would push the body to store more fat and sugars. This is why it is important to adapt the diet to everyone's tastes and habits in order to ensure long-term adherence.
  • Like any other low-lipid diet, the DASH diet could also increase triglyceride and cholesterol levels.
  • The DASH diet can be particularly difficult to put into practice, as salt intake requires constant attention when preparing meals.
  • It can also lead to risks of micronutrient deficiencies, associated with energy imbalance and reduced lipid intake.

The cost of the DASH plan

Another downside is that the cost of the DASH diet can be high, with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain products, and fish usually being expensive. However, you can save money by avoiding meat, sweet products and processed foods.

DASH diet: the pitfalls to avoid

Clearly, the follow-up of the DASH diet requires the user to plan his own daily menus according to the authorized portions. People who are not used to meal planning or cooking may need more specific advice.

Moreover, the types of food recommended are not exhaustive. For example, avocados are not included, so it is not clear whether they would be classified as fruits or fats. Some foods are classified into dubious categories: pretzels are placed in the cereal group even if they have a fairly low nutrient content and do not contain fiber. Similarly, frozen yogurt is part of the dairy group even though most yogurt cans contain little calcium and vitamin D and are high in added sugar. The general term "cereals" is placed in the group of cereals, but different types of cereals can be very variable in terms of nutrient and sugar content.

People with lactose intolerance or food allergies (e.g., nuts) may need to modify their diet to include lactose-free alternatives to dairy and seeds instead of nuts.

In addition, some people may experience bloating at the beginning of the diet due to the high fiber content of plant foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. However, this risk can be reduced by adding one or two new fiber-rich foods per week.

DASH diet: what contraindications?

The DASH program has no contraindications because, when used correctly, it usually does not lead to a deficiency. Thus, the DASH diet can be suitable for everyone, as it promotes a healthy, diverse, balanced diet and based on natural foods. On the other side of the Atlantic, this diet is recommended for people over 2 years of age, once the dietary diversification is complete.

In short, the principles of the DASH diet are simple: adopt a healthy, diversified and balanced diet. Following this diet, it is better to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, poultry and nuts, avoid red meats and sweets. It is also necessary to favor dairy products low in fat, and especially to limit its salt consumption to 2,300 mg per day.

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