Everything You Need to Know About the DASH Diet

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dash-diet-image-design-2Have you ever heard of the DASH diet before? It stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.

You guessed it: the diet is all about reducing the risks of high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, it’s a great diet to keep your levels under control and even get rid of it. This is one of those diets that aimed for the long term, and not just to lose weight. It treats many health conditions because you’re encouraged to eat healthily, do more exercise, and get fitter within yourself.

The main focus of the diet is to reduce the amount of sodium you consume. This is one of the major reasons for high blood pressure.

So, with that in mind, it’s time to look at the details of the DASH diet. Is this something you need to follow?

It’s Time to Focus on Fruit and Vegetables

Fresh organic vegetables ane fruits on wood table in the garden

The DASH diet is all about cutting out the sodium in your life. Your aim is to focus on fruits, vegetables and dairy foods. When it comes to dairy, you need to opt for the low-fat options, as they tend to have less added salt. You’ll also need to consume some poultry, fish, whole grains, and even nuts.

That doesn’t mean sodium is completely out of the question. After all, the body needs some of it. The amount you can have will depend on the type of DASH diet you follow. There are two options:

  • The standard one, where you take in up to 2,300mg of sodium each day
  • The low sodium one, where you can only have up to 1,500mg per day

You can choose the one that you want to follow, but you may be recommended by your doctor to follow the lower sodium option. This will depend on the severity of your high blood pressure and other risks to your health. Both of the diets work well, and they will help to reduce the sodium considerably. Did you know that we intake around 3,400mg of sodium a day! It’s no wonder that our bodies are struggling.

The recommended amount per day is the same as the standard DASH diet. All the diet wants you to do is live a healthier lifestyle! There are some recommendations for lowering your sodium level to the lower amount above to help keep your heart in good shape.

The reduction in sodium won’t just help to cure your hypertension. It is also great for helping those with diabetes and cancer while helping prevent conditions like heart disease and osteoporosis. The focus is put back into getting the nutrients that your body needs, so your body is able to absorb everything and keep your organs functioning properly

Yes, this is a diet that really does work. Patients have found that within 14 days their blood pressure reduces by a few points. In fact, it can drop between 8 and 14 points if you continue following the plan. Isn’t it worth putting your health first?

Does the Blood Pressure Really Matter?

Heart Attack and heart beats cardiogram background

Can something like hypertension really be that damaging? The truth is yes, it really can! High blood pressure is known as a “silent killer” because there are often no symptoms but it damages all your organs and arteries. It stops your blood pumping around your body properly and leads to heart disease and stroke.

In fact, it can cause:

  • Arterial damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Memory loss
  • Angina
  • Loss of sight
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • And so much more

These are all especially problematic if you have untreated high blood pressure.

How do you know you have it? Your doctor will take blood pressure readings on a regular basis. You should have it checked on a yearly basis, especially if you have a family history of hypertension.

When blood pressure readings are checked, you’ll see two numbers. A normal blood pressure is between 90/60 and 120/80. You could get 120/60 or even 90/80, but as long as the top and bottom numbers are between those values, you will have normal blood pressure and your doctor will be happy.

If the top number rises to 180 or more or that bottom number rises to 110 or more, you will need to get medical treatment immediately. This is dangerously high, and you’re at a high risk of heart attack or death. Doctors will also be worried if you have a level of 140/90 or higher (for either number), as you’re at a higher risk of serious problems with the heart and lungs.

As the numbers creep up, you’ll be advised to look at changes to help lower your blood pressure. The diet isn’t the only thing to consider, but it does plan an important role. You’ll also need to reduce your stress levels, as this can lead to high blood pressure.

If you have hypertension while pregnant, your doctor will look out for other symptoms and risks. You may be placed on bed rest if the blood pressure is the only problem. If you have to swell in the legs, hands and face and have protein in your urine, you will be checked for preeclampsia. This is a very serious and potentially fatal condition for both mother and baby.

The good news is that you can help to lower your blood pressure, without medication. This is something the DASH diet can do for you.

If Sodium Is Banned, What Can I Have?

Eat less salt – medical concept

It’s important to note that sodium isn’t completely banned. Your body does need some of it for normal function. It just doesn’t need as much as we tend to eat. Even if we think we have a healthy diet, you may be surprised at the levels of sodium in “healthy” foods. Those salads and sandwiches that you buy over the counter for something quick to eat tend to have high levels of sodium—at least, higher than you would expect.

While your sodium levels need to be reduced, it’s worth looking that the foods that you can have. Most of the focus will be on home cooking and use a few healthy alternatives to your meals. Rather than the full-fat milk or high-fat cottage cheese, focus on the lower-fat options. They tend to have less sodium than others. You will still need to look out for the sugar contents within these foods, but they do tend to be better for your hypertension.

Whole grains are a major focus on a diet because they release some sugars into the body and also help to regulate the blood pressure. There is very little sodium in them. Fruits and vegetables are also your friends.

What about fats and meat? Are you still allowed them? Doesn’t your body need them?

Of course! The body needs a diet that it around 5-10% fat, but you need to choose the better options for your body. Avoid the saturated fat or those that cause high cholesterol levels. These fats will just make your high blood pressure worse, and they can cause some of the obesity problems in the world—I say some because fat isn’t the only reason people are gaining weight.

When eating fat, focus on unsaturated options. There are plenty of options around, and you can still enjoy some cream cheeses and butter.

Red meat should be lean cuts as much as possible. You also want to avoid the salted versions and try not to cook with extra salt. If you are going to eat meat at all, try to opt for poultry or white meat instead, as it tends to be the healthier option. You can also opt for fish, focusing on a Mediterranean-style diet.

While sweets are allowed, they should be limited. Nuts and seeds are recommended on a weekly basis, and they can help to give you a quick snack that keeps you feeling fuller for much longer.

With your meals and snacks, you’ll have about 2,000 calories a day. You can reduce this depending on your own body makeup. After all, 2,000 is the recommended amount for an average woman to maintain weight. If you also need to lose weight, you’ll need to opt for fewer calories on a daily basis.

Getting Your Diet Plan Just Right

You do get some free rein on the DASH diet, but you’ll be recommended to follow some specific guidelines to make the most of your new lifestyle. Following the guidelines will help to ensure you don’t intake more sodium by accident.

Eat Mostly Grains

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The first part of the diet is the whole grains. You should get 6-8 servings of them a day, including pasta, bread and cereal. Whole grains are an essential part of the diet, but you may be surprised that one serving isn’t as big as you think or are used to. For example, ½ a cup of cooked pasta or rice is one serving. When you put that on your plate, you’ll find it’s much smaller than you have been used to in the past.

Don’t worry about going hungry, because that really isn’t going to happen. The benefit of whole grains is they don’t sugar in the blood as quickly. White pasta has a tendency to breakdown extremely quickly and causes an insulin response. You’re left feeling hungry not too long after eating. When you opt for whole grain pasta, it is full of fibre. This can take hours for the body to break it down fully, so you get that feeling of being full. We also recommend this health warrior chia bars.

High fibre foods are important. They help to keep the bowels and digestive system working fully. Whole grains will also have more nutrients, such as zinc, magnesium, and more. If you can find foods that are 100% whole grain or whole wheat, buy them and stock up.

Whole grains don’t contain much fat unless you decide to add it in. When cooking, avoid cheese sauces, butter, and anything else that could cause adding saturated fat and sodium to your diet.

Vegetables are Second

Wicker basket with green vegetables, fruits and herbs, vintage d

You may be surprised to hear that this diet gets you to focus mostly on carbs than anything else. After all, we’ve regularly heard that we need protein in our diets. We’ve also heard that we should eat more fruits and vegetables, but this diet focuses more on whole grains.

Vegetables come second on the DASH diet, and you should get between 4 and 5 portions a day. Opt for ones that are high in potassium and magnesium. Potassium and magnesium are essential for the heart to function properly. It helps to contract muscles and improves the health of the digestive system. They do very similar functions as sodium, without raising the blood pressure too much.

Some of the best sources of potassium and magnesium include broccoli and dark green leafy vegetables. You can also look at adding sweet potatoes, carrots and tomatoes to your diet. It doesn’t matter if you cook them or enjoy them raw.

One portion is a cup of leafy greens or ½ a cup of other types of vegetables (raw or cooked). You can enjoy your vegetables as a main meal or opt for them as a side dish with the rest of your food. Cooked vegetables over whole wheat noodles and rice make an excellent option for a filling meal and are just right for the DASH diet. You can even add a tomato-based sauce or opt for low-sodium versions of soy sauce and other sauces for a little bit of flavouring. Don’t forget the use of some spices and herbs for a little different kick.

You can still use frozen and canned vegetables if you want. They tend to be cheaper and can last longer. If you’re going to opt for these, make sure you look at the labels and find those that have low levels of sodium. This is especially important for those looking at using canned vegetables, as they tend to be in salted water to preserve them.

Pasta bakes, stir-fries and similar dishes tend to be filled with meats, vegetables and whole grains. You can turn them into more DASH-friendly meals by halving your meat and doubling your vegetables. You won’t even notice the change!

Don’t Forget the Fruit!

cherries, green plums and apricots

You’ll usually hear fruit and vegetables being added to a diet together. You’re often recommended to get five portions of a mixture of fruit and vegetables, but that’s not the case with the DASH diet.

Once you get your servings of vegetables, it’s then time to add your fruit on top, and you want between 4 and 5 portions. This really helps you get all the vitamins and minerals your body could need, including vitamin C and antioxidants to help boost your immune system and lower your blood pressure.

The best thing about fruit is that it’s easy. There’s no need to worry about cooking it, and in many cases, you can just grab and go. Because of this, fruit makes the perfect snack but can also be a healthy dessert at the end of a delicious DASH-friendly dinner.

Most fruit is low in fat. The ones that you should watch out for are coconuts and avocados. They tend to be oily and fatty in nature, although they are mostly unsaturated fats so much healthier than your junk food and chocolate!

Like with the vegetables, you don’t just need to eat fresh fruit. You can opt for canned and frozen types. If you’re going to opt for canned, look for those in natural fruit juices instead of the ones with syrup. It’s also worth draining the juice to avoid extra sugars in your diet.

Unlike vegetables, fruits have much more natural sugars in them. Dentists tend to encourage people to eat fruit as part of a meal or just after, rather than opting for it as snacks. However, for the overall diet, a fruity snack is going to be much better than snack bars and chocolate.

Do try to avoid the dried fruit as much as possible. These have lost the majority of the water and are full of sugar. While they still have some health benefits, especially when it comes to fibre, they aren’t as good for you as undried versions. Citrus fruits also tend to be full of acid, which can damage the teeth and interact with your medication. Talk to your doctor to see if there is anything that should be avoided.

When it comes to the end of the day, and you want something sweet, try some fruit with some low-fat yoghurt. You can even top with some seeds and nuts to create something filling. If you want to get adventurous, freeze a couple of bananas and then mash into an ice cream. Add some low-fat yoghurt to make it a little creamier if you wish.

Add a Bit of Dairy

dairy products

We’ve looked at a few recipe ideas with dairy already. This is an important part of the DASH diet. Not only is it full of vitamin D and calcium, but it’s an excellent source of protein.

Your body needs protein to help develop the building blocks for the muscles, tendons and bones. You’ll have noticed already that we’ve not got much protein in the diet, and meats are recommended in small amounts. Dairy is one of the best ways to get it into your diet when following this healthy lifestyle.

When you do pick your diary sources, make sure they are low-fat versions. Fat-free options are also excellent to help control your hypertension. The majority of fat in dairy is saturated, whether you get yoghurts, cheese, or milk.

Get 2-3 sources of dairy, which is the equivalent of a cup of milk or yoghurt or 1 and ½ ounces of cheese.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing frozen yoghurt. This is a great way to finish your day and make it feel like you’re enjoying ice cream. You can even add some fruit. If you want flavoured frozen yoghurt, mash fruit and mix it into plain frozen yoghurt. This will help you control the amount of sugar you’re adding to your diet, which will help to prevent and control diabetes as well as high blood pressure.

What if you have a problem digesting lactose? If that’s the case, you can choose lactose-free options. Do be careful with these, as they may have more fat in them.

While fat-free cheese is recommended, you’ll need to check the packaging for the sodium levels. All types of cheese tend to have high amounts of sodium, so you’ll want to make sure you stick with your 1,500mg or 2,300mg limits, depending on the type of DASH diet you decide to follow.

Limit Your Meat, Fish and Poultry

Fresh meat and dairy products.

Meat offers a lot of iron, zinc and B vitamins. Fish is full of omega-3. Chicken and turkey offer excellent levels of protein. While they are all good additions to the diet, you’ll want to limit them. The DASH diet recommends no more than 6 portions a day, but the lower, the better.

The problem with fish and meat is that they tend to be higher in fat, especially saturated fats. If you’re going to eat it, look for the lean versions, especially when it comes to the red meat. You’ll likely spend more money on these versions, but they’re better for you in the long run. In fact, the extra costs could help you because you won’t be as tempted to buy it!

We’ve already mentioned that you can half your usual meat portion and double up on vegetables. You’ll hardly notice the difference!

Try to bake, grill or roast your meats instead of frying them or cooking them in oils. Barbecuing the meats is also a great option since the fat drops off them instead of being soaked up in them. Fish is a great option, but do watch out for the types of fish you eat. The extra oily ones can tend to be higher in mercury, which is harmful in large amounts. These types of fish include swordfish, shark and tuna in large amounts.

The benefit of fish is the omega-3 fatty acids. Sure, they’re fat but a healthy form of fat. The omega-3 helps to keep the cholesterol levels do, which in turn helps to lower your blood pressure.

Add Some Weekly Nuts and Seeds

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Finally, it’s time to add a bit of crunch to your weekly diet. You don’t need many of these—just between 4 and 5 portions a week.

While nuts and seeds are good for you, they are high in fats, and some of them saturate. In small amounts, they are full of magnesium and potassium while being excellent sources of fibre and protein. There are some studies that show some of the nuts and some legumes, like peas and kidney beans, can help to fight against cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other health conditions. They are full of antioxidants to give the immune system a boost while helping to keep the cholesterol levels to a minimum.

Nuts can make a good healthy snack now and then. You’ll only need around a third of a cup full. Enjoy a small portion of dried fruit with your nuts and seed to have something a little different while in the workplace. Put in a ziplock bag or small tub, they are easy to transport.

If you’re a vegetarian, you could look at increasing your soybean count. These tend to fall into the nut food group for the DASH family, but they are excellent sources of protein and are full of the amino acids your body needs to build and repair muscle. They have a texture like meat, which is why soybean products tend to become meat substitutes for dishes.

Using Fats and Oils While Following the DASH Diet

You are likely wondering about using fats and oils in your diet. They tend to be included for cooking purposes, but some of them are considered healthy. After all, you just have to look at some of the benefits of using olive oil or coconut oil for cooking.

Remember that your diet still needs some fats. You’ll get some of them from your oily fishes and nuts, but you can also have some servings of oils and fats on a daily basis. Stick to no more than three a day, but try to limit yourself to around one or two. You don’t want to get more than 30% of your daily calories from fat sources, and you really don’t need that much for cooking. Even then, only 6% should come from saturated sources.

But the fats and oils aren’t just for the likes of butter or cooking oils. They come from mayonnaise and salad dressings. They can also be from some sauces, depending on the products you like to add to your stir fries and other dishes. One serving of fat would be a tablespoon of mayonnaise or two tablespoons of salad dressing. It’s not a lot!

Look out for anything that includes trans fat. You’ll likely find these fats in processed foods and baked goods. While you don’t want to cut them out, reducing the amount you eat completely is a great start.

Now is a great time to get into the habit of reading labels. This is where you’ll find out just how much sodium and saturated fat is in food.

Make Your Sweet Treats Healthier

Christmas mini cakes

We’re not going to tell you that you need to ban all sweet treats from your diet. The trick is to reduce the amount of bad sweet treats and focus on healthier versions. And there are plenty of great ideas out there when you set your mind to following this DASH diet perfectly.

First of all, let’s look at the sweet treats and items that you likely have on a daily basis. Did you know thejam is still allowed on the DASH diet? What about cups of lemonade or ice cream and sorbet? Doctors want you to reduce the amount of sweet food to just a few servings a week. Five is more than enough, whether it’s a tablespoon of jam or a cup of lemonade.

Look out for the low-fat and fat-free options. Sorbets are much better than ice creams because they are more fruit based. You can also enjoy fruit pops, graham crackers and some hard candy. If you love cakes and cookies, look for those that have low-fat options. Cookies are going to be easier to find than cakes.

Artificial sweeteners are allowed, but watch out for the risks to them. While artificial sweeteners don’t have the calories, they are still addictive, and there are some mixed reviews over whether they cause health problems or not. Sucralose and Stevia are better options than aspartame, which has a bad reputation with the health professionals.

Don’t replace nutritious options with artificial sweeteners. A homemade banana ice cream is going to be much better for you than a sugar-free, low-fat option from the store! Plain water or fruit infused water is going to be far better for you than diet cola or lemonade.

Try where possible to make natural sweet treats. We’ve already touched on ideas like using fruit and yoghurt for a dessert instead of chocolate, cakes, and other traditional options.

Does the DASH Diet Mean No Caffeine?

I know what you’re worried about now: that coffee fix in the morning. The jury is still out on caffeine and blood pressure. Sure it gets a bad rep for the heart, but that tends to be in large amounts. Even pregnant women are told they can have a cup of Joe or two a day without damage to the unborn baby.

So, does that mean you can still drink your coffee? This really depends on you. If your doctor believes your coffee intake is linked to your high blood pressure, it will be worth reducing the amount that you drink. That doesn’t mean cut it out completely but do try to reduce it. Why not enjoy one cup on a morning and then switch to water or milk?

Just because you don’t think your caffeine is linked to your high blood pressure doesn’t mean you can drink as much as you like. As I said, the jury is still out. There are definitely links to heart problems, but one or two cups shouldn’t do you any harm. Just be sensible about the amount that you drink.

This also moves us onto alcohol consumption. We know that this isn’t good for us in large amounts, but you don’t need to cut it out completely—unless you’re a recovering alcoholic or you want to, of course! Have no more than one drink a day, and try to stick to something like red wine, which has been linked to being good for the heart in small amounts.

Can the DASH Diet Help With Weight Loss?

The diet hasn’t be designed to help you lose weight, but there is some good news. Because of the healthy eating program, it is possible that the DASH diet will help with weight loss. You’re switching out all the high-calorie bad habits and opting for the low-calorie good ones. You’ll make better food choices throughout the day, whether it’s getting rid of the chocolate fixes or reducing the amount of high-fat foods you eat.

The diet also helps you stick to a certain amount of calories. You’ll find it easier to create a calorie deficit, which is why you will start to lose weight.

Your doctor will discuss with you if you should reduce the number of calories you eat. The aim of the diet is to get you to eat around 2,000 a day. This is the average needed for a woman, but if you’re over the averageweight, then you will burn more calories throughout the day. This means you’re more likely to lose weight.

If your body needs fewer calories, you’ll need to make some changes to your diet to reduce the number that you eat.Your doctor will be able to help you with this part of the diet to make sure you don’t unintentionally gain weight while trying to get your blood pressure levels under control.

Don’t Forget to Start Exercising

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The DASH diet is mostly focused on your eating plan, but that’s not all that will affect your blood pressure. The healthier you are in person, the better your blood pressure levels will be. This means looking for an exercise plan that will help you build a strong cardiovascular system.

Find some cardio activity that helps you boost your heart rate and get you really breathing. Walking is a great way to start if you haven’t done exercise before or in a long time. You can then work your way up to jogging and running if you want to. Get some friends involved or your family members to give you something to do. Exercising at first can feel strange, and you may feel like giving up. Taking your mind off the burn in the muscles is a good way to get yourself going and push yourself harder.

Not everyone likes to run or can even do it for sustained periods of time. While walking is good, what about trying something different? You could join a local sports club or just have some fun in the park with the kids after school. There are aerobics classes, swimming options, or even the gym to just giving you something else to do.

There are even bodyweight exercises and DVDs that you can do from the comfort of your own home. And don’t forget the benefit of the Wii Fit or Xbox Kinect to get you moving around in the house.

There really aren’t any excuses anymore not to get moving. Try to do around 30-60 minutes a day, depending on whether you want to maintain or lose weight. The time will also depend on intensity levels. If you’re going to do high-intensity workouts, you just need around 75 minutes a week because of the amount your blood will pump around your system.

Do discuss your exercise plan with your doctor before starting. Because of your high blood pressure, you may be encouraged to keep the extra strain on your body to a minimum. This could be something you do as you reduce your blood pressure with the DASH DIET.

Are You Ready to DASH?

Woman eating healthy food

Now that you know all about the DASH diet, it’s time to try it out. It can be overwhelming at first so my best advice would be to take a little at a time. As humans, we don’t like change. Our habits get stuck, and it can be difficult to force ourselves to adapt those habits. But habits are definitely not stuck in stone.

It takes around 6 weeks for us to develop a new habit. Give yourself that time to find if you like something new and let it take shape. That means give the DASH diet—and each little change—six weeks to take shape.

Make one or two changes at a time. Look at increasing your fruit and vegetable portions little by little over the course of a few weeks. Then work on reducing your meat portions and cutting down on the sweet portions that you have. Doing this doesn’t just stop the diet from seeming overwhelming but will also help to avoid digestive problems from major changes.

Digestive problems don’t mean the diet is bad for you. Your body is just so used to your current diet that it needs time to adjust to the new healthier options. You may find that bloating, constipation and diarrhoea are common if you make a lot of changes at the same time.

Don’t forget to reward yourself for your successes. This helps to keep the focus on the negative and look at the positives. Try not to reward yourself with food. Opt for new clothes, new exercise equipment, or day trips to places you’ve always want to go instead. It gets you out of the habit of making yourself feel good with unhealthy treats and puts your health first.

If you are struggling with the DASH diet, talk about it. There are others out there on this diet plan too. Your friends will want you to get your hypertension under control and your doctor may even know of some support groups out there. There are even social media groups where you get to be somewhat anonymous or forums where you can be completely anonymous.

Start DASHing and lower your blood pressure naturally. You deserve to put your health first.

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