Our dietitian busts 4 common misconceptions about the DASH diet—plus why you might want to consider it.
The DASH diet often flies under the radar, especially when compared to buzzy diets such as the Keto diet, but it’s one of the most widely-respected diets out there. U.S. News & World Report has named it the “Best Diet Overall” for eight consecutive years in its annual diet rankings, and it’s recommended by the American Heart Association, who used it to develop their 2010 Dietary Guidelines.
With virtually no food groups as off-limits, DASH offers much more flexibility than other popular diet plans. It can also aid in weight loss and weight maintenance, given its emphasis on overall health. With all its praiseworthy qualities, you’d think everyone would be following a DASH diet plan. But here’s the surprising truth—less than 2 percent of the population actually follows the DASH diet.
How could this be? Let’s take a closer look at the DASH diet to find out for ourselves.
What Is the DASH Diet?
DASH stands for "Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension." The diet was developed out of a study by the National Institutes of Health after researchers noticed that vegetarians tended to have lower rates of high blood pressure. Understanding that sodium intake affected blood pressure, researchers also believed that these levels may also be impacted by other nutrients in plant-based diets.
Enter the DASH diet. When individuals followed this eating plan, researchers saw dramatic reductions in blood pressure levels. Today, the eating plan is recommended for preventing and treating hypertension and heart disease—and it has been linked to decreased bone deterioration, improved insulin sensitivity, and possible risk reduction for some cancers.
How to Follow a DASH Diet Plan:
The DASH diet plan focus on increasing vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes; choosing lean meats, low-fat dairy, nuts and healthy fats; and limiting added sugars, trans fats, added salt, and processed foods. Serving sizes from each food group are based on individual calorie needs (see below for a 1600-calorie plan), and you’ll likely find that the plan looks pretty close to the MyPlate plan, as well as another consistently rated “top diet,” the Mediterranean Diet. Here’s a breakdown of the recommended nutrients in a typical day and week on the DASH diet:
Nutrients Per Day:
- Grains: 6 servings
- Vegetables: 3-4 servings
- Fruits: 4 servings
- Low-Fat or Fat-Free Dairy: 2-3 servings
- Lean Meat, Poultry, or Fish: 4 ounces or less
- Fat/oils: 2 servings
- Sodium: 2300 mg or less
Nutrients Per Week:
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes: 3-4 times per week
- Sweets and added sugars: 3 servings or less
The secret to DASH’s success is its emphasis on increasing vegetables, fruits, and whole foods that are naturally low in sodium and high in potassium. While most know that reducing sodium is essential, many don’t realize that getting adequate potassium intake is just as key for regulating blood pressure.
When foods are processed, their potassium levels actually decrease. So, choosing whole or minimally processed foods can improve blood pressure regulation from both a sodium and a potassium perspective. In addition, you’ll usually decrease your intake of saturated fat, added sugars, and overall calories—all of which can help you lose weight, and keep it off for good.
So—Why Does DASH Have So Few Followers?
DASH's lack of followers seems to come down to misconceptions that people have about it. Here are some common perceptions about the DASH diet, including what is—and what isn’t—true.
Misconception #1: The DASH Diet is Only for People With High Blood Pressure.
The DASH diet was created when researchers were looking for ways to effectively reduce hypertension, but this was over 20 years ago! Though it’s still often marketed as a treatment for high blood pressure, the DASH eating plan is really an ideal way to eat for overall health, weight maintenance, and chronic disease prevention. In fact, studies suggest that DASH lowers risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and some cancers.
Also, people with high blood pressure aren’t the only ones who need to worry about sodium intake. Data suggests that 90 percent of Americans exceed sodium’s max limit (3500mg) daily. Regularly going over this amount takes a toll on your body—even healthy bodies—over time.
Misconception #2: “Low-Sodium” and “No-Salt” are the DASH Diet’s Sole Focus.
Sodium reduction is part of the DASH equation, but it’s not the only focus. Eating by DASH recommendations also increases your intake of potassium, calcium, magnesium and fiber—all nutrients that play a role in cardiovascular health, as well as the prevention of other chronic diseases. It’s thought to be the combination of increasing your intake of these nutrients and decreasing your intake of added sugar, salt, sodium and unhealthy fats that leads to lower blood pressure and a laundry list of other long-term health benefits.
Also, reducing sodium doesn’t restrict you to boring, bland food, nor does it mean you have to toss out the salt shaker. Yes, reducing the amount of salt you use and choosing lower-sodium products are key, but opting for fresh foods or whole foods instead of boxed, canned, and ready-to-heat items makes a big enough impact. Experiment with spices and herbs, and use a little salt to enhance flavor. Salt should never be the sole flavoring or seasoning in any in dish.
Misconception #3: The DASH Diet is Unapproachable.
Many equate healthy eating, particularly lower-sodium eating such as DASH, with the idea that all meals have to be cooked from scratch. This is overwhelming for many (myself included), but there are plenty of tricks and tips to help you. First, understand that “whole foods” doesn’t exclusively mean fresh produce. Take advantage of time-saving, minimally processed foods like unseasoned frozen vegetables and no-salt-added canned veggies.
Two additional shortcuts that can easily be worked into a DASH diet plan are meal prepping and batch cooking—both of which are important for quick, healthy eating. Meal prepping doesn’t have to mean cooking a full meal, either. It’s just preparing components that can be used to toss together a quick meal—like baking chicken breasts, roasting vegetables, and cooking a whole grain like quinoa. You can also minimize time spent in the kitchen by buying weekly salad greens, bags of pre-cut veggies, and prepping produce at the start of the week.
Misconception #4: DASH is a “Diet” That You Follow Intermittently.
Perhaps the biggest thing that holds people back from following DASH is approaching it with an “all-or-nothing” attitude. However, DASH does not fall under the common “diet” approach of following an eating plan for a few weeks and then returning to your old way of eating. After all, no one’s diet is perfect. Like the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH diet is best viewed as a healthy way of living and eating. Making small, gradual changes in your food choices—and food quality—can help you form healthier habits for life.