The DASH diet has an image problem—it’s just not sexy, no crazy foods, no extreme requirements, no stories to amuse your friends with…just a healthy way of eating that can steadily reduce your blood pressure and risk for heart disease and stroke. It can even allow some people to stop taking blood pressure drugs. All of that is why it’s recommended by health organizations ranging from the American Heart Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to the National Kidney Foundation. And although it wasn’t initially created as a weight-loss diet, it gets high marks for that as well if you limit calories while following the DASH food group guidelines.
So why the ho-hum reaction to DASH—short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension? One reason is that people may not give it enough time to work. Or they might not make calorie and exercise adjustments that can maximize results. But a new study has found exactly what it takes to be successful on this powerhouse plan.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina and Duke University divided 129 overweight men and women with high blood pressure (but not yet on any hypertension medication) into three groups. One group followed DASH only, another followed an enhanced DASH with an exercise plan and diet tweaks for weight loss, and the third—the control group—didn’t change anything about their lifestyle.
After 16 weeks, the researchers compared their results. The DASH-only patients reduced systolic (the top number) blood pressure by 11 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by 8 mmHg, and the number of people in this group who might need blood pressure medication dropped from 51% to 23%. But the results were even more impressive in the DASH diet and exercise group—those participants reduced their systolic blood pressure by 16 mmHg and their diastolic blood pressure by 10 mmHg, and only 15% remained candidates for needing medication. What’s more, they also each lost, on average, 19 pounds. Not surprisingly, numbers barely budged for the control group.
Whether you want to reduce high blood pressure, lose weight or both, here’s how to make the enhanced DASH plan work for you…
The diet itself. The standard DASH diet does not make you feel deprived. It allows eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables, six to eight servings of whole grains, two to three servings of low-fat or nonfat dairy, two to three servings of healthy fats such as olive oil and up to six ounces of lean meat, poultry or fish every day. It also allows four to five servings a week of beans and/or nuts and even allows sweets as long as you limit them to a few servings a week. The DASH diet is a healthy eating plan for just about anyone, but because it was developed with a focus on blood pressure, it includes a daily sodium limit: 2,300 mg.
Calorie cutting. If you’re at a healthy weight, eating about 2,000 calories a day for a man or 1,600 for a woman (depending on your metabolism and activity level) on DASH will help you reduce blood pressure while maintaining your weight. But if you want to lose weight (and most people with high blood pressure should), cut your total daily DASH calories to about 1,200 if you’re a woman or 1,500 if you’re a man. Note: If you haven’t yet cut out sweets, do so now to lose weight. If you already have, cut the food group limits proportionally from the plan described above.
Exercise. The enhanced-DASH group walked on a treadmill for 30 minutes three times a week at a moderate intensity, meaning they worked hard enough that they could talk but not sing during the exercise. Though this is below the 150-minutes-per-week fitness guideline recommended by the CDC, it’s a good starting point for people new to exercise and gives you a solid foundation to add to.
A support system. The enhanced-DASH group had weekly small group sessions led by a dietitian. Having a shared goal is a powerful motivator and, as anyone who has ever tried dieting alone knows, it’s hard to do on your own. Consider joining an in-person or online diet group and/or ask whether your health insurance covers sessions with a weight-loss counselor.
Patience. Study participants committed to the program for four months. You might start seeing results sooner, but also keep in mind that DASH is designed as a lifelong program and that results will continue to build over time. Stay on DASH long enough, and you’ll be rewarded with good results every time your blood pressure is taken or you step on a scale.