Diet Review: The DASH Diet for Heart Health

When it comes to choosing a weight loss plan, it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing solely on the numbers on the scale. Sure, we all want to see those numbers enter a range that meets our goals, but we don’t want to forget about how we feel in the process. After all, weight loss shouldn’t just be about looking fantastic in a pair of jeans; it should be about our health, most of all. 

The DASH diet is one of those diets that is particularly geared toward greater health. While you can certainly lose weight with the DASH diet, that isn’t the main goal. DASH is an acronym for “dietary approaches to stop hypertension.” Hypertension, of course, is high blood pressure and is considered by doctors to be a measurement greater than 140/90 that is sustained over a regular period of time. All of our blood pressures go up and down based on a host of factors, from anxiety to exercise, but if your blood pressure is consistently over 140/90 without any clear explanation, your doctor will likely begin to suggest some lifestyle changes that can help lower your pressure to a level that is healthy and safe for your body. This is where the DASH diet comes into play. 

The DASH Diet: Eating for Better Blood Pressure

With the DASH diet, you eat less salty foods (which are known to increase blood pressure) and more foods that are known to lower blood pressure, like those foods rich in potassium or magnesium. These nutrients are also known for their ability to maintain a healthy heart rhythm. 

The Mayo Clinic reports that by regularly following the DASH diet, you could begin to notice significant improvements in your blood pressure numbers as time goes on, even by as much as 14 points after several weeks of following the plan. That’s a huge drop that can help prevent those scary things that we worry about when suffering from high blood pressure, including strokes and heart problems. 

How to Eat When You’re Following the DASH Diet

If you decide to give the DASH diet a try, you’ll be eating much less sodium (salt) than the average American. With so much of the Western diet being filled with processed and fast foods, the average person easily consumes more than 3,400mg of sodium a day. With the DASH diet, you aim to consume no more than 2,300mg, and people with severe blood pressure concerns might choose to take it a step further, by reducing sodium to less than 1,500mg a day. 

Enjoy Whole Grains, Fresh Fruits, and Green Vegetables

This isn’t a low-carb diet. That’s right; pasta’s allowed! Well, the whole-grain variety. In fact, the DASH diet expects you to eat several servings of fibrous, nutritious whole grains per day, alongside servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables. When choosing grains, make sure to look for “whole grain” or “brown” on the labels — as tasty as it is, you don’t want “white bread,” or “white rice.” Unfortunately, these foods don’t offer the same nutrition benefits and don’t adhere to the DASH diet standards.  

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, almost anything goes. It’s important to note, however, that canned and frozen foods often have added salt. Check the label for the low-sodium varieties, and buy fresh whenever you can. 

Certain foods are higher in magnesium and potassium than others. Bananas and greens, for instance, contain high amounts of each of these nutrients, respectively. Both of these nutrients help control your blood pressure.

A Balanced Diet Plan

The DASH diet is all about eating a balanced diet, albeit with less salt. As such, you’re encouraged to eat a few servings of dairy a day. Cheese, the Mayo Clinic explains, can be high in sodium, so you might want to focus more on healthy, low-fat yogurts and skim milk. A yogurt with a sprinkle of blueberries and strawberries on top would make for a heart-healthy DASH diet choice. 

In the West, we have a tendency to think of meat as our main course. The DASH diet encourages you to think outside of the box a bit and center vegetables more often as your main course. However, 6 ounces of lean meat or less per day is apart of the DASH diet, particularly heart-healthy fish options. Nuts, too, are an excellent source of magnesium and healthy fatty acids, as are sunflower seeds and bean or pea varieties.  You can have a handful of nuts a few times a week for optimum heart health. 

With the DASH diet, even fat isn’t off-limits; it’s just reduced. Try to eat less than 30% of your daily calories as fat, and try to make sure that the fat you do eat is as healthy as possible (like the nuts). The DASH diet severely limits saturated fats and trans fats altogether.

When it comes to sweet splurges, you can still enjoy them on the DASH diet, but in moderation. That’s the key in most healthy diet plans, though, right?

Some other splurges, like alcohol and caffeine, can actually contribute to raising your blood pressure, at least temporarily. If you’re following the DASH diet not just as a heart-healthier way of eating, but as a true attempt at reducing blood pressure, you’ll want to steer clear of alcohol and caffeinated beverages as much as possible. 

What About Calories?

Here’s the thing: The DASH diet is more about eating in a healthy way than losing weight. Since that’s the case, there isn’t a plan for lowered calories like with most other diets. If you’re following the DASH diet, you can eat the typical 2,000 calories a day, but if you are trying to lose weight as well, you might choose to reduce your caloric intake on your own.  

Tracking Your Sodium Intake

At its core, the DASH diet is all about salt. You might consider tracking your sodium intake using an app, like My Fitness Pal. If you’re trying to turn the DASH diet into a healthy weight loss plan, you can track your calories on the app, too. 

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