Use DASH to Live Longer… Feel Better… and It’s Not as Hard to Follow as You’ve Heard

Maintaining normal blood pressure is vital to staying healthy, but perhaps we’ve been trained by the mainstream medical community to rely too much on drugs to do it. For many people, there can be a better — and safer — way that requires nothing more than your spoon and fork.

During a five-center study in the 1990s sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that participants with high blood pressure (hypertension) who followed a specific dietary plan called DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) lowered systolic pressure (the higher number in a blood pressure reading) by 11.4 mm/Hg and diastolic pressure by 6 mm/Hg. More recent studies gave the DASH diet added value — at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, an analysis of data from the long-term Nurse’s Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study found that following the DASH diet was associated with lower risk for kidney stones. Other studies find that a DASH diet lowers risk for cardiac disease and stroke… and most recently, at Utah State University in Logan, an 11-year study has demonstrated that elderly adults who followed DASH stayed mentally sharp longer.

How to Do DASH

The diet, as I will explain in a moment, basically consists of eating healthy foods with some specific tweaking, plus a salt limitation. Given that the typical diet of Americans today is filled with processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat, DASH is often described as “difficult to follow.” But believe me when I tell you — it isn’t! I discussed this issue with Marla Heller, MS, RD, author of The DASH Diet Action Plan. She agrees that it usually takes time to overcome a lifetime of bad habits such as living on french fries and soft drinks… but the DASH plan includes a wide variety of delicious, satisfying foods. It is important to follow this dietary plan closely, she said, because in addition to restricting sodium, eating the recommended amounts of foods on DASH provides high amounts of magnesium, potassium and calcium. A diet that is rich in foods with this combination of nutrients is what helps to control blood pressure.

In a nutshell, here’s the DASH diet…

  • Whole grains — six to eight servings a day of products made from 100% whole grains… a serving is one slice of bread, one ounce of dry cereal, or one-half cup of cooked cereal, whole-grain pasta or brown rice.
  • Fruits and vegetables — eight to 10 servings a day… a serving is defined as one cup of raw, leafy vegetables or one-half cup of cooked veggies, one medium fruit, one-half cup low-sodium vegetable juice, one cup of fresh fruit, or one-half cup of frozen or canned fruit. To reduce calories, Heller suggests limiting starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn and the like, but the good news is that you can eat as much as you like of the nonstarchy ones, for example, tomatoes, green beans, leafy greens, peppers and others.
  • Low-fat or nonfat dairy — two to three servings a day. A serving is one cup of milk or yogurt or one and one-half ounces of cheese.
  • Lean meat, fish and poultry — six or fewer ounces a day. A three-ounce serving is the size of a pack of cards, which is sufficient with a meal.
  • Nuts, seeds and beans — four to five servings per week… servings include one-half cup of cooked dried beans or peas, one-quarter cup of nuts or two tablespoons of peanut butter. Heller says it is okay to have more beans than this each week, but if so you should balance that by eating less meat, fish and poultry.
  • Fats and oils — two to three servings a day …with a serving being one teaspoon of margarine or vegetable oil, one tablespoon of mayonnaise or two tablespoons of salad dressing.
  • Sweets — up to five servings a week… such as one-half cup sorbet, one tablespoon of sugar, jelly or jam, or one cup of lemonade.
  • Sodium — The National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine recommends not exceeding 1,500 mg to 2,400 mg of salt per day (1,500 mg is about two-thirds teaspoon of table salt). Note: Factors such as medications you are on, exercise and diet history should be considered in determining your optimal sodium intake.

Make DASH Delicious…

Here’s another reason the DASH diet is tastier and easier to follow than you might think: It follows many of the same principles as the Mediterranean Diet that is so popular today, in particular its focus on a daily bounty of fresh vegetables. It’s easy to find restaurants serving these foods.

While many new DASH followers complain about a lack of flavor, what they really are reacting to is the lack of salt. Heller shared some of her favorite cooking tips for flavorful food — and she noted that reducing salt intake is easier if you make the change gradually. She often uses a base of onions, garlic and red wine, which she says makes just about everything tasty. “For sautéing foods, I start with onions and garlic together and at the very end of the dish I add a little bit of red wine and cook it down to evaporate the alcohol,” she explains. Herbs add flavor, too — for instance, try a bit of oregano or thyme on vegetables. A sprinkle of reduced-sodium cheese can also be delicious, as is, surprisingly, cinnamon. Another trick of Heller’s is to drizzle a bit of olive oil (a tablespoon, she suggests) over foods, which enhances their flavor and adds fat, making them more satisfying and also helping with absorption of nutrients.

To get started on DASH, Heller says, it is vital to clear your kitchen and pantry of all foods that are not on the diet. Then stock up with a wide variety of fresh, tasty and healthy DASH foods. That way, when your stomach rumbles, you will have plenty of satisfying no-cheat choices. For more information on DASH, suggested menus and recipes, go to

Marla Heller, MS, RD, author of The DASH Diet Action Plan (Amidon), based in Chicago. Her Web site is