DASH Diet Challenge

Five Things You Need to Know About the DASH Diet

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Are you curious about the DASH Diet and if it is right for you? Below are five things you need to know about the DASH Diet to help you decide.

The DASH Diet was named the 2nd best diet by US News and World Report for 2019.

Every year, the US News and World Report ranks diets, and the DASH Diet is consistently ranked in the top spots, along with the Mediterranean Diet. In 2019, the DASH Diet was only surpassed by the Mediterranean Diet, and the DASH Diet had held the top spot for the previous eight years! The DASH Diet also ranked in the top three spots for “Best Diets for Healthy Eating,” “Best Diets for Diabetes,” and “Best Heart Healthy Diets.” The DASH Diet ranks so high because it is nutritionally complete and safe to follow, and has additional benefits including supporting heart health and preventing and controlling diabetes, And, while the DASH Diet is not technically a weight-loss diet, many who follow a calorie-restricted DASH Diet find they do lose weight.

The DASH Diet is a heart-healthy diet.

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The DASH Diet (or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertention) was originally created to help people lower their blood pressure and studies have shown that it does just that. In fact, doctors often recommend that their patients follow the DASH Diet to control high blood pressure. As well as controlling hypertension, studies have also shown that the DASH Diet increases good HDL cholesterol and lowers bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides which can help to lower the risk of heart disease. Foods which are known to control high blood pressure and support heart health, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, are emphasized on the diet. For women, the DASH Diet has been associated with a 20% reduced risk of heart disease and a 29% lower risk of stroke.

The DASH Diet is easy to follow.

The DASH Diet allows all foods and can be adapted to suit most dietary preferences, including gluten-free, moderate-carb, kosher, halal, low salt, and vegan/vegetarian diets. No food group is off-limits, so you can choose from a wide variety of food, including sweets in small amounts, which can help to reduce cravings. In addition, the DASH Diet is a very safe diet to follow as there are no potential health risks identified in following the diet.

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The DASH Diet may help to prevent or control diabetes.

The DASH Diet ranked #2 in best diabetes diets because it follows nutritional guidelines recommended for diabetics. Combining the DASH Diet with calorie restriction can help with weight loss and help to control metabolic syndrome. The DASH Diet has also been shown to help control blood sugar levels.

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The DASH Diet limits salt intake.

For those who love their salt, this may be the most difficult aspect of the DASH Diet. Limiting salt intake can be important for controlling high blood pressure, which was the original purpose of the DASH Diet. The DASH Diet limits salt intake to 3/4 teaspoon daily. Some studies have found that reducing salt intake to the level recommended in the DASH Diet is not necessary; however, most people can benefit from reducing their salt intake from processed foods. Many find that once their palates adjust to a lower salt intake, they enjoy the varying flavors of food, especially when enhanced with other herbs and seasonings.

Key Takeaways:

  • The DASH Diet is a nutritionally complete, safe, and well-researched diet

  • The DASH Diet is proven to reduce high blood pressure and support heart health

  • The DASH Diet can prevent and control diabetes

  • The DASH Diet is easy to follow and adaptable to many different ways of eating

  • The DASH Diet is a low-salt diet

DASH Diet Challenge - Week 1

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Week 1 of the DASH Diet Challenge is complete and I want to share with you how it went.  Below, I will break down what I ate, results for the week, and what I learned.  If you are considering trying out the DASH Diet for weight loss, to lower your blood pressure, or for heart health, I hope this information will be helpful to you.

For this challenge, I set my daily calorie goal at 1,800 calories, based on the calorie needs chart provided by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the creator of the DASH Diet Plan.  I wrote a previous post on the DASH Diet recommended food groups and serving sizes.

I started off the week tracking my food intake using my Fitbit app.  While this app does a good job of calculating total calories, sorting out percentages of carbs, proteins, and fats, and it is easy to enter the data, I couldn't track the sodium intake.  So, midweek, I switched over to tracking in MyFitnessPal.  The free version was adequate for my needs, but a premium version is available.  This app can track your food diary, and you can also track your water intake and exercise and generate printable reports (which is a great extra if you are keeping a food diary to share with your physician or dietician).  It has the functionality to provide nutrition information on imported recipes and help you with meal planning.  There is also a community forum, and MyFitnessPal syncs with lots of trackers, including the FitBit.

Week 1 Results:

1.  My starting weight was 219.5.  Weight on Friday was 217.8 - down a little over a pound, and that is within my goal plan for the year.

2.  Blood pressure.  I knew my blood pressure has been running high for several years.  I decided should get a reading for a baseline for this challenge.  Before I left my office Friday afternoon, I checked it, and it was a freaking scary 183/94.  I checked it 2 more times on different machines, and the results were similar.  Not good!  And here is where I have to admit that I did not do what I would tell any one of you to do:  I did not immediately take myself off to see the doctor.  I did what a lot of women do.  I waited. 

Luckily, when I went to my local pharmacy and checked my blood pressure the next morning, it was much more in line with what I expected at 144/87.  That reading is still way too high, though.  I will be putting a visit with my physician on my calendar this week for sure!

3.  Exercise.  I only exercised one morning this week.  Since the weather has remained frightfully cold, I did a walk-jog video on YouTube.  Gotta love all the workout video options on the internet.  

4.  The Diet.  Once I put everything I ate this week into the food diary, I categorized each food into the appropriate food group categories.  And here is what I found:

  • I had a really hard time eating the recommended amount of grains, and I did not achieve the recommended amount on any day of the first week.  I'm not used to eating a lot of grains, and even consciously incorporating them into my daily mail plan was hard.  They also have a relatively high calorie count for small portions and aren't very filling.
  • It was fairly easy to get in the right amount of vegetables every day.  My lunch is usually 3 cups of leafy power greens and lettuces, sprinkled with lemon juice, with a serving each of meat, cheese and fruit. 
  • I had to consciously add fruits, just as I had to consciously add grains.  I only got the recommended amount on 1 day.  I went for apples (studies have shown that women who regularly eat apples have lower blood pressure), and low sugar fruits like berries.  I did add bananas to smoothies on a couple of days, for the potassium and sweetening.
  • Dairy was easy.  Just a cup of yogurt or kefir or fat free milk and a cheese stick and this one is taken care of.
  • Lean meat, fish, poultry - This was another easy category.  I focused more on lean meats and fish like tuna and turkey, bison, and lean beef stew meat.
  • Because of my addiction to hummus, I went overboard on the nuts, seeds, legumes category this week.  Enough said.
  • Using just a bit of avocado oil was enough for the fat category - another easy category to meet, but I had to be careful of the portion so that I wouldn't exceed the allowance. 
  • I don't usually eat a lot of sweets anyway, having weaned myself off most sugar over a year ago, but I did have a Halo top ice cream pint that lasted through three days, and one night, I indulged in two cinnamon twists from Dominos.  The nice thing about this diet is that it does allow for those little indulgences once in a while.
  • Speaking of Dominos, yes, my favorite pizza place does have health(ier) options.  When the fam decided that Friday should be pizza night, I chose the plain bone-in chicken wings and the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad with the Lite Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing.  But I should probably find another option for the hot wing sauce - it is way high in sodium.
  • Keeping the sodium levels low was also a challenge.  I admit it, I like the salt shaker.  Tracking it is making me mindful of how much is in what we eat everyday.
  • On only two days did I go over my calorie allowance, and not by much.  Most days were under the allowance, so I consider that a success.
  • Tracking my food intake made me really mindful of the portion sizes on the DASH Diet.  This is an area where I have struggled to get control and it is probably the area that has most contributed to my lack of progress in losing weight.  
  • There were a few things that I ate during the week that I have had to scratch my head about where to fit them in the plan:  the half and half in my morning coffee, a little snack bag of potato chips (are those a vegetable lol?), EAS Advantage Low Carb Shakes (to stave off a hunger attack mid-morning), a Zone Perfect Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar (does that go under "Sweets" or "Nuts"?), and chicken/vegetable broth that I used in soups.  
  • Although I did feel hunger on most days as lunch or dinner approached (hence, a shake or protein bar - and I'm not sure a little bit of hunger is necessarily a bad thing), I did not feel deprived.  There really was no food that was absolutely prohibited, and I could eat a large variety of foods.  
  • Planning meals through the week helped to keep me on track.
  • This whole challenge is not necessarily about following the diet perfectly.  It is about learning to be mindful about what I am eating and improving my eating habits and portion control.  Tracking my calories and portions right now is very helpful to me so that I can see exactly what and how much I'm eating and where I need to make adjustments.  

I've copied my chart and food diaries below to help you with your own meal planning on the DASH Diet.  I've color coded the top chart in green (met the goal) and red (did not meet goal), so I can more easily see where I can improve.  Please note that the charts show exactly what I ate in the first week of the challenge.  Obviously, from the chart below, if you wanted to follow the diet perfectly, some adjustments would need to be made to the meals.  Feel free to use this information as a starting point to create your own meal plan.

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Follow my progress on the 30-Day DASH Diet Challenge!

Learn to Love Your Heart in this series on Midlife Women and Heart Health

DASH Diet Challenge - Food Groups and Serving Sizes

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As I wrote in my DASH Diet Challenge Post, for the next 30 days, I will be following the DASH Diet.  

As with most diets, one must start by figuring out what you can eat.  The NIH National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute includes several charts to help us decide an appropriate calorie intake and servings of various food groups.  Based on the calorie chart, I should take in 1,600 - 1,800 calories a day.

It's the next step that often stumps people.  What exactly does that mean in terms of what I can eat?  According to the chart, I can have:

  • 6 servings of grains per day
  • 3-5 servings of vegetables per day
  • 4-5 servings of fruits per day
  • 2-3 servings of fat free or low-fat dairy products per day
  • 3-6 servings of lean meats, poultry or fish per day
  • 3-4 servings of nuts, seeds, and legumes per week
  • 2-3 servings of healthy fats and oils per day
  • 3-5 servings OR LESS of sweets per week
  • Maximum sodium intake of 2,300 mg per day

Hmm, sounds like a lot of food, right?  But now, I need to know just what a serving is for each type of food.  So, on to the next chart.

Grains.  In the grains category, a serving size is 1 slice of bread, an ounce of dry cereal, a 1/2 cup of cooked rice, pasta, or cereal.  The slice of bread is easy enough to visualize.  For the other items, I will have to use a measuring cup.  Accurate portion control is going to be important, especially for the grains, as they are high in carbohydrates.  For a visual reference, a 1/2 cup of rice is a lot less than you think - about the size of a half of a fist.

Vegetables.  The vegetables category is my favorite, since I especially like green, leafy vegetables and my lunch is usually a salad made from mixed lettuces and power greens.  A serving size of leafy vegetables is a cup (a good handful), or a half cup of cut up raw or cooked vegetables.  Starchy vegetables like potatoes should be eaten sparingly.

Fruits.  To be honest, I have not been eating a lot of fruit, since many are high in sugar, and I do seem to be very sugar sensitive.  However.  In the fruit category, a serving size would be a medium size fruit (think a medium size apple), or a 1/4 cup of dried fruit (about the size of an egg for visual reference - no scarfing down a whole bag of dried mangos!), or 1/2 cup of fresh, frozen, or canned fruit.  You may notice I haven't mentioned fruit or vegetable juice.  I don't particularly like either one, but if you do, a serving size would be 1/2 a cup.  I'll be going for lower sugar fruits such as berries and Granny Smith apples (delicious sliced and sprinkled with a bit of cinnamon).  

Dairy.  A serving size is 1 cup of milk or yogurt, or 1-1/2 oz of cheese.  People who are lactose intolerant (I am not) can drink lactose-free milk.  I've found that milk from grass fed cows seems to taste better, even when it's fat free, and I like Kroger's Simple Truth version.  If you are following this diet, or any others that allow dairy, be especially aware that Greek yogurts, although higher in protein, often have a lot of sugar in them. I've been choosing lower sugar yogurts like Siggis since I started eating breakfast every day.  You can also make your own yogurt so that you can control the sugar content.  For a visual reference for the cheese serving size, it would be the size of a 9 volt battery.

Lean Meats, Poultry, Fish.  A serving size is 1 oz of cooked meat, poultry or fish (for visual reference, 3 ounces is the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand).  One egg would also be a serving in this category.  That's way less meat than I am used to eating, so this will require me to manage my portions.

Nuts, Seeds, Legumes.  A serving size is 1/3 cup or 1-1/2 oz of nuts (much smaller portion than we are used to thinking about - I can easily scarf down a bag of pistachios at one go).  For nut butters, a serving size would be 2 tablespoons, and for seeds, the serving size is also 2 tablespoons or 1/2 ounce.  The serving size for cooked peas, lentils, legumes is 1/2 cup (the same as a serving size of rice).  Note that this category is 3-4 servings per week, not per day.

Fats and Oils.  A serving size is 1 tsp of margarine, butter, or oil, or a tablespoon of light mayonnaise or salad dressing.  (This one will be hard - I love my healthy fats!  But for the purposes of this challenge, I will do my best to follow the guidelines).  

Sweets and added sugars.  I'm pretty sure this category was added in so that people don't feel deprived by having to give up their sugar.  You are allowed a few servings a week of jelly or jam (1 tablespoon) or syrup, 1/2 cup sorbet or gelatin dessert, or a piece of hard candy.  

So that's the breakdown of what is allowed and how much.  Now, on to meal planning!

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Learn more about Women and Heart Health in my Love Your Heart series.

The DASH Diet Challenge

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As part of my series of Heart Health Month articles, I will be experimenting with the DASH Diet in the form of a 30-day DASH Diet challenge.

As you may know from reading my previous blog articles, losing 52 pounds is one of my goals for 2018.  As a general rule, I do not promote any particular diet.  It's my opinion that there are many good diet plans out there, focusing on eating healthy and nutrition-dense foods that will promote weight loss and good health if followed.  The hard part is picking one and sticking to it.

However, the DASH Diet, which originated in research conducted by the NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, consistently gets high marks for improving cardiovascular health, especially in lowering blood pressure.  The DASH Diet has been ranked as the best diet for the past eight years by the National Institutes of Health according to US News and World Report.  The study's original author, Dr. Stephen Jurasche, an adjunct assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, has stated that in people with higher blood pressure, the diet is "comparable to anti-hypertensive medication." Since my blood pressure has run high for the past few years, and since I would prefer not to have to go on medication, this sounds like a great benefit to me.

Free guides and recipes are available from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.  The diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low fats and whole grains, and decreases sugar, sodium, and high fat foods.  No real surprises there.  The diet does provide calorie goals for different age/activity groups, and for my goal of 52 pounds in a year at moderate activity, my suggested daily caloric intake is 2,000 calories.  The plan also suggests increasing physical activity levels (no surprises there either).

Now, I know some readers will immediately exclaim in horror, "But the carbs!"  Yes, I know.  I tend toward the lower carb theories myself.  However, this is an experiment on myself to see what happens if I follow this diet for 30 days.  Up until now, I have not really "followed" any particular diet plan; rather, I have just tried to eat healthy foods while cutting out sugar.  But I have not been good at managing my portions or focusing on specific foods for a specific result.  

After I have 30 days worth of results from following the DASH diet, I can then decide if it is working for me or not, and how or if I would tweak it for me personally.  I already have my baseline of my current state (an important step in the 2018 Success Planner - click the link to download and build your own plan for success in 2018).  Now, I need the next piece, which is to follow the part of my action plan that is "eat a healthy diet", and share and record the results (the accountability piece), and then change or continue as the results dictate.  And maybe what I learn by experimenting on myself will help you too.

So for the next 30 days, I will be following the DASH Diet and posting up my results, both here and in the Yes I Can Health Facebook group.  

I would love to have you follow along, since I will be updating this blog post throughout the month. 

And you can learn more about Women and Heart Health in my Love Your Heart series.