Despite its sterile-sounding name, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan is pretty flavorful. Because it’s rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, fish, poultry, nuts and other foods that are naturally low in sodium, it tastes better than a diet high in sodium and refined sugar. In one study, eating a low-sodium DASH diet seemed to be more palatable than the typical American diet, explains retired research nutritionist Eva Obarzanek, PhD, formerly of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, who worked on the first study to show that DASH could help lower blood pressure.
Similar to the Mediterranean-style diet, DASH is high in plant-based foods and low in animal-based ones. It doesn’t allow a lot of processed and prepared foods that tend to be high in sodium, added sugar and excess fat. Most importantly, it’s rich in nutrients that are associated with controlling blood pressure: minerals (potassium, magnesium, calcium), protein and fiber. Researchers don’t know exactly how these help, but they believe that compounds like nitrates, which relieve pressure by keeping blood vessels healthy, play an important role.
And, since it’s proven to reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke and help control weight, DASH is especially healthy for midlife women (with and without high blood pressure) who are at risk for age-related diseases and the weight gain caused by hormone flux.
So, what’s the catch? DASH isn’t easy. “In the beginning, most people fall short of the 8-to-10 fruit and vegetables a day goal,” explains Mary Beth Augustine, RD, of the Continuum Health & Healing Center in New York City. To help clients adjust, she suggests preparing 10 sandwich bags each with cut vegetables every Sunday to supplement meals during the week. Other tips: double the serving size of vegetables at each meal, and, until your taste buds get used to the reduced levels of salt, add fresh lemon juice to foods like soups and sauces. And consider consulting a registered dietitian (find one at eatright.org) to get started. Research shows that counseling is helpful for those following DASH. Insurers don’t always cover nutritional counseling for hypertension, but some may pay if it’s related to other conditions, like diabetes, so it’s worth asking your provider.