Ditch the Diet Products and DASH Instead!

heart-healthy diet

Diets are big business. There are diet books, diet blogs, diet websites and a slew of diet products. The problem is, many diets don’t work and, at the end of the day, they may lead to malnourishment, increases in chronic disease, and even weight gain.

Why? Because so many diets focus on either eliminating an entire food group, drastically cutting calories or relying on heavily processed meals and snacks provided by a “diet” company. With all the advances in medicine as well as the increased attention to nutrition and fitness, you’d think we could finally get losing weight – and keeping it off – right. But, we still have not found the solution.

Perhaps it’s our use of the word “diet” and what it implies – a restriction or total elimination of things we love. There is one diet, however, that has stood the test of time, that has taken the smoke and mirrors out of the process and incorporated more of a “back to the basics” approach.

It’s the DASH Diet. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet stemmed from a series of studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health aimed at helping individuals incorporate a dietary approach to lowering their risk of high blood pressure. It was never meant for weight loss but, as more and more people tried DASH, it was evident that sticking to it may have meant getting the body you had always dreamed of.  So what’s so special about DASH? As it turns out, its simplicity is what makes it so effective.

The breakdown of the diet is as follows:

  • A reasonable calorie level of about 2100 calories (although various plans are broken down that can go as low as 1600 calories or as high as 3100 calories based on individual needs).
  • Adequate intake of potassium, calcium and magnesium 
  • Sodium intake with a goal of 1500 mg and not to exceed 2300 mg
  • Fiber intake of at least 30 g
  • 6-8 servings of grains; with a goal of making the majority being 100% whole grains 
  • 4-5 servings of vegetables and 4-5 servings of fruits
  • 2-3 milk products
  • 6 or less sources of lean protein
  • 4-5 servings of nuts, seeds and legumes per week
  • 2-3 servings of fats or oils
  • 5 servings or less of sweets or added sugars per week
  • 30 minutes of physical activity each day, or 60 minutes to prevent weight gain

In addition to the basic parameters, DASH educational tools provide menus, suggested activities and a multitude of food suggestions on getting the right foods to fit within the basic parameters.

As a registered dietitian, I think one of the best things about DASH is its no nonsense approach to healthy eating. Whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and a minimum attention to animal products dominate. I also like that the individual on the diet can still have a few sweets during the week. Even though sugar is associated with several adverse health outcomes and eliminating it completely is ideal, many people find giving it up all together to be too much of a challenge. I’ve had several patients that have sworn it off, only to find themselves binging on sugar-laden snacks a few weeks into their diet. Allowing a moderate amount may, in fact, actually increase adherence.

Finally, let’s not forget the initial goal of DASH which is to stop the development of high blood pressure. High blood pressure puts us at an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and kidney problems. Studies show that lowering sodium in the diet can help to significantly reduce the risk of these diseases and mortality associated with them as well. The DASH diet is a clear “win-win” for both disease risk and weight loss. Isn’t it time for you to take on a more simple approach?