Last week, when the annual best diets list from U.S. News and World Report came out, the DASH diet once again made the cut—praised for its ability to help people lose weight or simply improve their overall health.
This recent buzz has put DASH back in the headlines again. But what exactly is the DASH diet, and is it something you should try? As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I have counseled people through it; in my opinion there are pros and cons.
What exactly is the DASH diet?
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, yet it’s not only effective for people trying to lower their blood pressure. The diet has been around for two decades, and studies have shown that it can lead to weight loss, protect heart health, and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and certain cancers. For these reasons, it’s promoted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The plan is relatively simple. DASH recommends specific portions from a variety of food groups daily, depending on your daily calorie needs (which are determined by your age, sex, and activity level). For example, a 1600 calorie DASH diet includes 6 servings of grains daily; 3-4 servings of vegetables; 4 servings of fruit; and 2-3 servings of low-fat dairy. Also recommended are 3-4 ounces total per day of lean meat, poultry, or fish; 3-4 servings of nuts, seeds, and legumes per week; and 2 servings of fats and oils daily.
DASH puts limits on sugar, recommending 3 or fewer servings per week of sweets. It also curtails sodium intake to a maximum of 2,300 mg per day. The diet is intended to be part of a lifestyle that reduces alcohol consumption and emphasizes stress reduction, physical activity, not smoking, and getting plenty of sleep. In short, it’s not a fad diet. DASH is meant to be followed for the long haul.
DASH drawbacks to consider
But DASH does have some drawbacks. The plan is lower in healthful fats than I usually recommend, and there aren’t obvious options for people who can’t or don’t eat dairy or animal proteins. Also, I typically advise a higher intake of non-starchy veggies and slightly lower consumption of starches.
Another con is that the rate of weight loss with DASH can be slow. To see continued progress, it’s important to pinpoint your ideal calorie level and follow the recommended portions carefully—in other words, two level tablespoons of nut butter, not two heaping spoonfuls.
Why Dash can work for weight loss
Yet DASH offers a number of positives. In addition to being very sensible, nutrient-rich, and effective, DASH is fairly straightforward and sustainable. Many books and cookbooks are available to help DASH dieters figure out how to transform the daily servings from all the different food groups into practical meals and snacks.
In my practice I have helped clients create outlines that make sense for meal planning (for example, including one serving of fruit with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack; one serving of veggies at lunch and two at dinner; two servings of starch at breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and so on). This type of framework is essential for implementing the diet daily. Understanding how to order from restaurant or takeout menus is also important.
Bottom line: DASH is tried and true. If your goal is weight loss, DASH won’t melt the pounds off quickly. But if you identify the proper calorie level and stick with it consistently, it can be a safe, effective, and sustainable way to shed pounds, and simultaneously improve your health.
Because DASH has been around for so long and is well accepted by health professionals, there are a lot of free resources online to access help. However, if you have trouble figuring out how to take the recommended daily and weekly DASH servings and turn them into menus, consult with a registered dietitian nutritionist. He or she can also personalize the plan for your needs by adjusting for food allergies or intolerances and offering tips for following the plan as a vegan or vegetarian.
To get started, go to the NIH’s DASH page. Keep in mind that some aspects of the plan will work for you, but others may not. Ultimately the best diet is one that generates results, makes you feel well physically and emotionally, and has stick-with-it-ness.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health‘s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.
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