Teach Me

What Is The DASH Diet And Is It Right For Me?

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a serious problem that can lead to major health concerns if it is left unchecked. Fortunately, there are many ways to manage it to keep yourself healthy, including diet, exercise and medications, if needed.

When it comes to your diet, there are several options available, including the DASH eating plan, or the DASH diet. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension, and it is an eating plan that is designed to be flexible and balanced.

While other diets may require special foods, the DASH diet doesn’t. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) explains the DASH diet “instead provides daily and weekly nutritional goals.” The NHLBI says the recommendations are:

  • Eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains
  • Including fat-free or low-fat dairy, fish, poultry, beans, nuts and vegetable oil
  • Limiting food high in saturated fat, including fatty meats, full-fat dairy and tropical oils
  • Limiting sugar

Mary Branom, RD, is a dietitian who helps patients in cardiac rehabilitation at North Colorado Medical Center. She helps explain what the DASH diet is and what it is not.

The DASH diet basics

While some diets dictate specific foods, the DASH diet is easier to follow because it lets you choose more of a variety of foods regularly available at your grocery store. It’s less of a strict plan and more of a set of guidelines to help you make healthier choices.

A key component to the DASH diet is making sure you’re getting enough servings of the recommended foods based on how many calories you need during the day. Not everyone is going to be interested in counting calories with every meal, so Mary uses a plate model and food models that show appropriate portion sizes for each patients. This allows patients to visualize alternatives that would be healthier.

For her patients following the DASH diet, she recommends they have half of their plate filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. A quarter of their plate would have a starch or grain, and the last quarter would have a lean protein. A portion of low-fat milk or yogurt is also encouraged.

The importance of fresh

Another key component of the DASH diet is cooking for yourself, which gives you control over the ingredients. Cooking your meals means you can have less of the harmful ingredients that prepackaged and frozen foods—processed foods—might have. Mary teaches cooking demonstrations in her education classes so patients learn new recipes and cooking basics.

“With processed foods, they will more likely have the types of fats that aren't as healthy, such as trans-fat, such as hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated fats,” Mary said. “Processed foods will also be higher sources of sodium, which contributes to high blood pressure.”

Mary says, when choosing a frozen dinner, you’re going really need to pay attention to the nutrition label on it. She suggests you should look for something with fewer than 600 mg of sodium per meal and then add an extra vegetable serving and a cup of 1% milk. 

“Most everyone needs to add more vegetables to their diet, especially the non-starchy ones,” Mary said.

And, while canned vegetables are convenient, they can be a major source of sodium. For example, Mary says she may have a patient willing to eat canned green beans only, so she would recommend the patient find the “no salt added” option.

This freedom of choice often helps her patients stick with the eating plan. But, is the DASH diet the only way to go?

DASH Flexibility

Possibly the DASH diet’s greatest asset is its flexibility, allowing people following it to substitute items they may not like for those they do. For Mary, the flexibility means being able to meet her patients’ needs better by blending it with other diets.

One option Mary thinks fits well with the DASH diet is the Mediterranean diet. Both are heart-healthy plans that focuses heavily on fruits and vegetables.

“The DASH diet and the Mediterranean have been around for a long time, and people can see some success with their blood pressure when they are lowering their sodium, eating more of the fresh foods versus processed foods and adding in healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and seeds or avocados,” Mary said.

When Mary first meets with a patient, she tries to find out what he or she might already be doing. From there, she begins introducing different approaches to help them. But, she realizes she must be realistic.

“It's hard for people to want to make changes to their diet since they are stuck in a certain routine. I have to try and meet them where they are and help them build some new, healthy lifestyle habits,” Mary said.

Finally, Mary offers three tips to help you start making healthier choices:

  • Avoid foods with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats listed in the ingredients.
  • Try to avoid processed foods, such as cold cuts, hot dogs and "junk food."
  • Eat more veggies.

Talk to your doctor today about a referral to a registered dietitian in one of our Banner Health clinics.

Nutrition Wellness Heart Health

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