DASH: The simplest diet plan ever for healthy eating

Forget complicated programs, DASH is easy and provides a wealth of benefits.

Does your head spin when you try to figure out where you stand on your nutrient scores – are you getting enough calcium, potassium or folate, for example? Turns out you don’t have to sweat the small stuff. Research is increasingly showing that one of the simplest eating plans I’ve seen – the DASH diet – reaps head-to-toe health benefits.

A recent study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, looked at the DASH diet and its impact on weight gain in adolescent girls in the U.S. The research tracked more than 2,200 girls through their teen years and used a scoring system to measure how closely their dietary habits resembled the DASH diet.

DASH – Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension- is an eating pattern first investigated as a method to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. It’s based on plenty of fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. Whole grains are emphasized over refined ones and small portions of poultry, fish and lean cuts of meat are included.

In the study, the subjects were not instructed to follow any type of eating regime, but they were rated on individual components of the DASH diet. Those who had a similar style of eating to DASH gained the least amount of weight through the study. For example, the girls who ate greater amounts of fruit had lower BMIs (23) compared to those (26) who ate fewer servings. Similar differences in BMI readings were also found in those who ate more low-fat dairy products.

But DASH isn’t just an eating program for teenage girls or people with blood pressure problems. I’ve come across about a half dozen studies touting DASH’s varied benefits in just the past few months.

One recent Harvard School of Public Health study, published in the journal Diabetes Care, followed more than 41,000 men for a 20-year period and assessed their overall eating styles, rather than individual foods or nutrients in their diets. It found that the DASH diet protected against the development of another disease on the rise, diabetes. (The Mediterranean diet also scored top marks here too.)

DASH may also prevent many of the cardiovascular problems, including artery disease, that go hand-in-hand with diabetes. Keeping blood sugar and blood pressure readings in check, along with blood cholesterol levels, is key to decreasing diabetes complications. Guess what? The DASH diet can help with all of these too.

Still not sold? How does a reduced risk of colon cancer grab you? A large study at Simmons College in Boston of more than 87,000 women and 45,000 men found a 20 per cent reduced risk when they followed the DASH diet.

But here’s the real beauty of the diet – its simplicity. You don’t have to count how much of various nutrients such as potassium, calcium or vitamin C you’re eating. Nor do you have to think about all the foods you shouldn’t be eating.

Including all the foods on the DASH diet makes for plenty of choice and leaves minimal room for options with little nutritional value. When you fill your plate with all the nutrient-packed fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products the plan calls for each day, chances are you won’t be hungry for junk food.

Scientists don’t know which specific components of DASH provide each particular benefit, which is why the plan promotes a more holistic approach. In fact, researchers say that focusing on the parts rather than the whole can actually cheat you out of the thousands of phytochemicals – the varied disease-fighting compounds found in the plant-based foods in which the diet is rich.

When you fill your plate with a combination of these foods, they seem to have a synergistic or additive effect – for example, eating avocados with tomatoes offers more advantages than when each is eaten alone. While each contains antioxidants, when combined their antioxidant power is even greater. So when you go for a tomato salsa and guacamole, the monounsaturated fat in the avocado enhances the absorption of the red pigment lycopene from the tomato beyond if you ate just the tomato alone.

If you don’t usually get around to meeting your quota of DASH options, there’s no better time of year to try. Local produce is everywhere and it’s not just good for you – it’s a real taste treat too!

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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