Q: I keep hearing about the DASH diet as a healthy way to eat for heart health, but following rigid food plans doesn’t work well for me. Can’t I just focus on eating high-potassium foods?
A: The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet can be a great guide for shaping your eating habits, without following it like a system of rigid rules. The DASH diet was developed to treat or prevent high blood pressure and so one goal of DASH is to boost potassium consumption, which is important for keeping blood pressure at a healthy level. But it also emphasizes eating foods rich in magnesium, calcium and fiber while limiting foods high in sodium.
Overall the health benefits of the DASH diet seem related to the multiple ways it differs from typical American eating habits. For example, eating more high-potassium foods means more fruits and vegetables. The DASH diet also contains high amounts of whole grains, legumes (dried beans and peas), nuts and seeds, and fat-free or low fat dairy foods. Including all these foods means more potassium, magnesium, calcium, dietary fiber and phytochemicals that support antioxidant defenses. Together, these seem to improve blood pressure more than potassium alone. What’s more, research shows other heart-health benefits and the potential to reduce cancer risk, too
The DASH diet is about more than foods you add to your usual choices, it is also about the foods you reduce. To avoid excess calories and weight gain, the DASH diet cuts sweets and sugar-sweetened drinks substantially, with just a few small servings a week (depending on what calorie level is appropriate). Saturated fat-laden full-fat dairy products, fatty meat and butter are very limited in a DASH-style eating pattern, too. The original DASH diet also limited oils and salad dressings, but further studies found versions of the diet with moderate amounts of fat that are mainly unsaturated to be at least as healthful, if not more so. And don’t forget the importance of limiting high-sodium processed foods, too. All-in-all, you can use it as inspiration and example of how to shift your eating habits to a healthful, plant-focused approach to eating.