While the Mediterranean diet may be one of the healthiest diets and the Keto diet can work wonders for weight loss, the DASH Diet is one diet that every Indian should try. Why, you ask? For the simple reason that we are increasingly vulnerable to lifestyle diseases like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes & cancer. Today, heart disease is the leading cause of death in India, affecting an estimated 1 in 3 adults, while the number of diabetics has crossed 60 million!
You may not have heard of the DASH diet, but that’s because it’s not a fad diet like the Cabbage Soup Diet, Blood Type Diet, or Juice Diet. Yes, unlike those ridiculous diets, marketed by unscrupulous hacks, the DASH diet is extremely healthy and includes a variety of natural foods like fresh vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, nuts, and fish and poultry, while restricting the intake of red meats, alcohol, and sugar. The diet is so impressive and effective that it has been rated as ‘The Best Overall Diet’ by the U.S. News & World Report for 6 consecutive years, even beating diets like the Mediterranean diet and Weight Watchers, which are known to be healthy.
What Is the DASH Diet?
“DASH is in fact an abbreviation for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, which doesn’t sound particularly catchy or appetizing, but the diet has also been found to be effective in protecting against other lifestyle diseases like heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and cancer”
The DASH diet is basically a product of over a decade’s research into nutrition and health, aimed at finding a dietary strategy to lower and control blood pressure. The healthy eating plan was designed by medical experts, including dietitians, food scientists, cardiologists, and endocrinologists, among other specialists. DASH is in fact an abbreviation for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, which doesn’t sound particularly catchy or appetizing! However, it isn’t simply the best high blood pressure dietÂ for the prevention and treatment ofÂ hypertension, butÂ it has also been found to provide various additional benefits.
“The diet is highly recommended by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute , The Department of Health and Human Services, The National Kidney Foundation, The American Heart Association, and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans”
Aside from the fact that experts at the U.S. News & World Report rate it as the best overall diet because of how balanced and healthy it is, the diet is also highly recommended by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute , The Department of Health and Human Services, The National Kidney Foundation, The American Heart Association, and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The diet is actually ideal for almost any adult because all of us face a high risk of hypertension and heart disease today. The DASH diet specifically offers protection against such lifestyle diseases, as its low-sodium requirement is the first line of defense against hypertension. Diet plans can also be tweaked and customized to meet each individual’s health needs.
While the diet has been earning accolades for its safety and nutritional wholesomeness, how effective is it when applied practically? Is it easy to follow, sustainable, and does it provide any benefits other than reducing the risk of hypertension? Read on!
Health Benefits Of The DASH Diet
1. Reduces Blood Pressure
The diet is effective in lowering blood pressure because of its focus on foods containing minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium that influence blood pressure. The limitations on salt and sodium intake also help to lower blood pressure, while reducing fluid retention, which also normally adds to pressure on the heart.
2. Lowers Cholesterol
Because of its inclusion of whole grains that provide high quality dietary fiber, the diet has been shown to significantly lower cholesterol levels, as several studies have now shown a positive influence of such fiber on cholesterol levels. More recent research also suggests that instead of consuming low fat dairy, it may be a good idea to use higher fat dairy products, as they were found to actually lower triglyceride and bad cholesterol levels. So, if you’re looking for cholesterol diet to control those levels, the DASH diet is once again perfect.
3. Weight Loss
Although weight loss was not an objective of the DASH diet, studies have shown that it helps users to lose weight. This is also a vindication of reputable dietitians who have been stressing that healthy eating, rather than calorie counting is the way to sustainable weight loss. A healthy eating plan naturally causes a calorie reduction, as dieters start to feel satiated with highly nutritious but low calorie foods, rather than on calorie rich foods with low nutrition. The high fiber content of the diet is also an important contributing factor in weight loss.
4. Kidney Protection
As revealed in a study that appeared in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases, the DASH diet also helps to lower the risk of kidney diseases, among other chronic conditions. This is attributed to the nutritional balance of the diet that prevents an excess buildup of minerals that contribute to kidney stones. The sodium and salt restriction also enhances kidney protection, as high sodium intake is often linked with kidney disease. Patients already suffering from kidney disease may require variations of the diet like the vegetarian DASH diet, which is lower in protein, making it ideal for those suffering from proteinuria, a condition in which the patient’s urine contains excessive amounts of protein.
5. Diabetes Management
The DASH diet also works fantastically as a diabetic dietÂ because of its blood pressure lowering and heart protection effect, both being factors that predispose you to diabetes. While the diet is primarily aimed at preventing and controlling hypertension, studies have shownÂ it to be effective at managing diabetes, as the sodium reduction also improves various health parameters like glycatedÂ hemoglobin (A1C), waist circumference, and cholesterol levels. Moreover, the DASH diet’s restriction of simple carbs including white bread, white rice, and other processed foods syncs perfectly with the recommendations of the American Diabetes Association.
6. Cancer Prevention
According to many experts, the DASH Diet can also help with cancer prevention because of the predominance of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in the diet. This claim is supported by studies that demonstrate a positive influence of DASH Diet on cancer prevention, possibly because of the high concentration of fiber, minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients, including antioxidants that reduce free radical damage.
How To Switch To The DASH Diet
Switching to the DASH Diet is a lot easier than you’d think, for the simple reason that it is a practical and sustainable diet that does not restrict or exclude any food group. What it recommends is a particular number of meals in a day, including various food groups, and these numbers can vary depending on each individual’s caloric requirements, taking into account age, gender, weight, height, race, health conditions, activity levels, and so on.
To get started, you simply need to restrict your sodium intake to about 2,400 mg a day. As you adjust to this reduced sodium intake, you can cutback further to about 1,500 mg a day. Keep in mind that this means you need to carefully calculate all sodium ingested, including in packaged foods, not just from the salt you add to your meals. When you go on the DASH Diet, this is what your daily meal plan should look like.
Grains:Â 6 to 8 servings a day (serving size = 1/2 cup or single slice of bread)
You can include whole grains like cereal, rice, oats, and whole wheat pasta or bread, but focus on products that are 100 percent whole grain.
Vegetables:Â 4 to 5 servings a day (serving size = 1/2 diced or cooked vegetables)
Vegetables are not meant to be used as sides, but should form the bulk of meals; include a variety of veggies, like tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, brinjals, lady fingers, and lots more. There’s no reason to exclude any vegetable and the wider the variety the better.
Fruits:Â 4 to 5 servings a day (serving size = 1 medium-sized fruit or 1/2 a cup of fresh fruit)
From bananas and grapes, to apples and oranges, every fruit offers high nutrition and requires virtually no preparation time. Keep it varied and try not to exclude any type of fruit.
Meats: 6 servings or less a day (no more than 170 gms a day)
This only includes lean meats, poultry, and fish like salmon and tuna. Remove skin from poultry products and avoid frying; instead opt for steaming, baking, or grilling.
Nuts, seeds and legumes: 4 to 5 servings weekly (serving size = 1/3 cup nuts, 2 tablespoons seeds, 1/2 cup cooked pulses/beans)
You can include a variety of nuts like almonds, cashews, and walnuts, as well as seeds and pulses like sunflower seeds, til seeds, kidney beans, chickpeas, and so on.
Fats and oils:Â 2 to 3 servings a day (serving size =1 tsp margarine/ghee, 1 tbsp mayonnaise, 2 tbsp salad dressing)
When choosing cooking oils, mayonnaise and salad dressings, read the labels carefully and look for healthy varieties like olive oil and canola oil that are low in saturated fats and contain no trans fats.
Dairy Products:Â 2 to 3 servings a day (serving size = 1 cup milk/yogurt, 45 gms cheese)
Milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products are central to any balanced diet, but you should opt for low fat varieties, especially in cheese; also avoid buying flavored yogurt and dairy based desserts.
Sweets:Â 5 servings or less weekly (serving size = 1 tbsp sugar/jelly/jam, 1/2 cup dessert, or 1 square of chocolate)
Sugar contains no nutritional value and only gives you calories, which is why sweets need to be avoided as far as possible; to keep your taste buds happy you can indulge occasionally, but try to stick to sweets with lower fat content and less sugar.
Alcohol & Caffeine:Â Excessive alcohol intake has been shown to cause an increase in blood pressure, which is why alcohol intake should be restricted to no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink or less for women. Studies on the effects of caffeine on blood pressure are controversial and often contradictory, which is why there are no specific recommendations on the avoidance or inclusion of coffee. The best advice would be to moderate intake and report any suspected ill effects to your doctor.
Healthy eating is a gradual lifestyle change that should be gradually adopted. You can make one change at a time, as it is not like smoking, where you need to simply quit cold turkey! Most importantly, remember that although the DASH Diet is extremely effective, you also need to stay physically active to maintain a healthy quality of life.
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