Have you heard of the DASH diet? It is a healthy way of eating that helps reduce blood pressure, improve heart health, and lower the risk of many chronic diseases. But is the DASH diet also good for sustainable weight loss?
What Is the DASH Diet?
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and was developed in the late 1990s as part of a research study through the National Institute of Health<sup>1</sup>. The researchers wanted to see if people with high blood pressure could lower it through diet changes.
The Science Behind the DASH Diet
According to the American Heart Association, approximately half of all American adults have high blood pressure and it is one of the contributing factors to many chronic diseases, including heart disease, heart attacks, vision loss, and kidney disease<sup>2</sup>.
Traditionally, if you have high blood pressure, health care professionals recommend reducing your sodium or salt intake. While a low salt diet helps some, most people also combine it with medication to get their blood pressure to a safe level.
In the late 1990s, researchers found that people who followed a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products along with reducing their saturated fat and total fat intake were able to lower their blood pressure in a few weeks without the help of medication<sup>1</sup>.
<p class="pro-tip">Read more: Does dairy (lactose) cause blood sugar spikes?</p>
The DASH diet plan focuses on including nutrients known to help lower blood pressure such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium. The diet also recommends modest reduction in sodium intake.
The Benefits of the DASH Diet
The DASH diet consistently ranks as one of the best and overall healthiest diets in the world by health professionals in an annual U.S. News and World Reports survey<sup>3</sup>.
While the DASH diet was designed to lower blood pressure, people who follow the DASH diet also see additional health benefits including a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, dementia, metabolic syndrome, and cancer. Many people who follow it also lose weight<sup>4</sup>.
The Flexibility of the DASH Diet
Rather than a strict diet plan, the DASH diet is a flexible, whole food eating style that also focuses on a healthy lifestyle and physical activity.
Specific food groups are encouraged including lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Reducing portions of higher fat foods including red meat, fried foods, and sweets is also encouraged along with reducing sodium intake<sup>5</sup>.
Meals on the Dash diet are focused around large portions of vegetables and grains with 3 - 4 ounce portions of lean protein. Chicken, pork, and seafood are included with healthier fats like olive oil.
<p class="pro-tip">Here are some easy sheet pan chicken dinners that meet the DASH guidelines)</p>
Rather than eliminating specific foods completely, the diet suggests limiting them, which makes the diet something that is more sustainable for the long-term. Many people who try the DASH diet find they are able to stick with it because it is so flexible.
Are There Any Risks of Following the DASH Diet?
There aren’t any serious risks for people following the DASH Diet. The main issue some people experience is gas and bloating when they start the diet. Suddenly adding a lot of fiber-rich foods can cause some initial gastrointestinal discomfort in some people, but this passes quickly as your body adjusts.
To lessen any symptoms, start by slowly adding more fiber-rich foods into your meals and work your way up to the recommended servings gradually.
What Can You Eat on the DASH Diet?
The DASH Diet is based on eating whole, unrefined foods, meaning they are minimally processed and pretty close to how you might find them in nature. The DASH diet guidelines are based on fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. The diet also encourages lean proteins like lean beef, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy foods, and healthy fats<sup>6, 7</sup>.
- Fruits: 4 to 5 servings a day. A serving is 1 medium piece of whole fruit or ½ cup fresh, frozen, or canned fruit or fruit juice.
- Vegetables: 4 - 5 servings a day. A serving is ½ cup of cooked vegetables or 1 cup of raw vegetables.
- Whole Grains: 6 to 8 servings a day. A serving is 1 slice of bread, ½ cup cooked cereal or rice, or 1 oz. dry cereal.
- Low-fat Dairy: 2 servings a day. A serving is 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1 oz. of cheese.
- Lean Meats: 2 servings a day—total of 6 oz. per day and includes 2 servings of seafood a week.
- Nuts and Seeds and Legumes: 4 to 5 servings a week. A serving is ½ cup cooked beans or legumes, about ⅓ cup nuts, or 2 tablespoons of nut butter.
- Healthy Fats: 2 - 3 servings a day including olive oil, avocado oil, and grapeseed oil. A serving is 1 teaspoon of oil or butter, 1 tablespoon of salad dressing.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/vegetables-metabolic-health">the top 12 vegetables for metabolic health</a>.</p>
Will the DASH Diet Help with Weight Loss?
While the DASH Diet is focused on improving blood pressure, sustained weight loss is often an added benefit.
One of the reasons people who follow the DASH diet lose weight and keep it off is that it’s slow and steady. You gradually start changing your diet and begin learning new habits which helps you keep the weight off.
It’s also high in fiber so it helps you feel full longer. Since it also limits sweets and sugar you are less likely to experience high blood sugar spikes when following this diet.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/blood-sugar-high-blood-pressure">how blood pressure and blood sugar are related</a>.</p>
A recent small study with older adults found that after following a DASH diet for 12 weeks, they lost an average of 6.3% body weight. Blood pressure and body fat percent decreased, and all maintained or improved their muscle strength<sup>8</sup>.
In another small study of people with non-alcoholic liver disease, those who followed the DASH diet for 8 weeks lost weight and improved cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, liver enzymes, and insulin metabolism<sup>9</sup>.
How does the DASH Diet Compare to Other Diets for Weight Loss?
<p class="pro-tip">Read more about finding a personalized nutrition plan for weight loss</p>
There are many strategies and popular diets available today and it can be confusing to try to sort through it all<sup>10</sup>. So, how do they all compare and how does the DASH diet stack up, especially when it comes to keeping weight off?
DASH vs. Mediterranean Diet
The DASH and Mediterranean diets are very similar because they both focus on whole foods, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. They’ve also both been rated the top two healthiest diets to follow by US News and World Reports for the last ten years because research shows they can both reduce the risk of many chronic diseases<sup>11</sup>.
While known for its health benefits, less is known about how well the Mediterranean diet works for long term weight loss<sup>12</sup>. A large systematic review found the people following the Mediterranean diet for a year lost a similar amount of weight as those following other diets. The exception was with a low fat diet where the Mediterranean diet had slightly better results.
Both the Mediterranean and Dash diets are helpful for people who want to lose weight because they are fairly high in fiber-rich foods and encourage a moderate fat intake, both of which are filling. They are also relatively easy to follow for the long term.
Weight loss on both tends to be slow and steady and more people are able to keep weight off when following these diets because they are fairly flexible and can be individualized and personalized<sup>12</sup>.
<p class="pro-tip">Learn more about the Mediterranean diet and blood sugar</p>
DASH vs. Keto Diet
While the DASH diet is fairly balanced in carbohydrates, protein, and fat, the keto, or ketogenic diet, is high fat and very low in carbohydrates (less than 50 grams a day).
Studies have shown keto promotes short-term weight loss,but there is little data to support long-term weight loss<sup>13</sup>. A small retrospective study looked at people who followed a very low calorie ketogenic diet and found those who received the intensive instruction over 2 years were more successful in maintaining weight loss than those who did not receive instruction<sup>14</sup>.
Because it is so restrictive, many find it difficult to follow for long periods of time and return to their normal eating pattern with any weight they lost returning.
DASH vs. Calorie Counting
The DASH diet isn’t a calorie-based eating plan. Instead it recommends a certain number of servings of specific foods at certain calorie levels. Most people who follow the DASH Diet don’t count their calories. Instead, they focus on reducing portions of high-fat foods and eating more nutrient-rich foods.
Calorie counting is a bit more restrictive and often involves weighing and measuring foods and keeping a food diary.
Tracking your food intake can be a great way to understand what you are eating and may help facilitate weight loss and is easier today with new technology, but is it helpful? A recent small study compared tracking with a smartphone app compared to paper documentation and found little difference in the amount of weight lost or calorie intake<sup>15</sup>.
DASH vs. Low-Sodium
The DASH diet is lower in sodium than the typical American diet<sup>16, 17</sup>. It focuses on whole foods rich in nutrients that promote healthy blood pressure that also tend to be low in fat and calories. As a result it often helps with weight loss.
On the other hand, a low sodium diet won’t necessarily lead to weight loss. Just lowering your salt intake doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll cut back on foods high in fat, sugar, and calories.
While there have been some studies that suggest a lower sodium diet leads to weight loss, other recent research found little change in weight just from reducing sodium<sup>18</sup>.
What Is Not Allowed on the DASH Diet?
The DASH diet focuses on foods rich in nutrients and doesn’t eliminate any food. It does suggest limiting foods that are high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar.
What Does Healthy Weight Loss Look Like?
Healthy weight loss is sustainable weight loss. It is slow and steady. A pound or two per week is healthy for most people. While rapid weight loss can be encouraging for some people, rarely is it sustainable.
Learn How Your Body Responds to the Foods You Eat
<p class="pro-tip">Finding a weight loss plan that works for you and is sustainable is most important. Signos can help see how your body responds to any diet, including the DASH diet. Learn more about how Signos works.</p>
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