…even though “best diet” is a misnomer
US News & World Report ranked the DASH diet as the best diet. Again. In their 2018 best diet ranking, the DASH diet is tied at the top with the Mediterranean diet. Do I believe their expertise in making this judgment? I’m not so sure–but I do have my own reasons to believe that this is indeed one of the best ways to eat healthy. It sure has been working well for me and Hubby!
1) DASH “diet” is an approach, not a diet.
This might seem like semantics, but I think it’s important. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. I know, I know, this is a horribly unsexy name, but it does signify that it’s an approach, a philosophy, a framework–not the restrictive set of rules and allowed and prohibited foods we think of when hearing the word “diet.” I think I’m allergic to that word at this point, lol.
2) DASH diet is not extreme.
…which is probably one reason it’s not flashy enough to be a media darling, but it’s a-o-kay for me. Eating is something I do every day of my life, so any way of eating I follow has to fit naturally and easily into my life. Otherwise I’d abandon it once the initial fervor wears off. If everyone follows a diet for 2 weeks or 3 months and abandons it in frustration and self-loathing, that can’t be the “best diet.” In this regard, it helps that I already like a lot of the foods that the DASH diet, but even for picky eaters, I think it’s inclusive and flexible enough to work!
3) DASH diet is flexible.
Since it’s an approach or a framework, DASH diet doesn’t tell you what to eat or how to eat them. You are free to pick and choose the ingredients, cuisines and cooking methods to fit your preferences and lifestyle, within the overall framework. It’s like being given a skeleton and freedom to flesh it out in any way I see fit.
I absolutely value this freedom. For one thing, Hubby and I both love food, so we need to be able to truly enjoy every meal we have, to the extent possible. For another, the creativity and fun in the cooking process is something I really cherish. The simple, instant gratification of cooking is hard to give up, too, when so much of life and work is mid- or long-term goals with no immediately satisfying result. So, a more strictly regimented diet wouldn’t work for me in this regard, either.
This unspecificity and need for creativity and improvisation might be a challenge for some. I’ve also seen related complaints that “it’s just common sense.” Well, it is and it isn’t, which brings me to my next point.
4) DASH diet guides you with easily measurable goals.
Much of DASH diet is indeed common sense for people who have been exposed to healthy eating and healthy life in general. I’m one of those people (thanks, mom). However DASH diet does give this “common sense” an organized structure and measurable goals. Even relatively well-informed eaters can benefit from them.
Have you ever heard of SMART goals? SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-limited. Those are the traits that are supposed to comprise a good goal, i.e., goals that help people achieve them. DASH is good in this regard: Instead of just saying “you should eat more vegetables and less meat,” DASH diet provides the numerical, measurable goals for each category of food. I know I’m doing well when my vegetable/fruit serving count is above 5 by lunchtime. Conversely, it’s easy to realize that my fat/oil intake is getting out of control when I see the fat/oil serving stays above 3 for a couple of days.
And because the serving sizes are mostly volume-based, it’s pretty easy to measure where you stand. Those that aren’t can easily be converted to eyeball-able volume measures. This is in contrast to calorie counting and point systems, which, I assume without ever trying them, have a pretty steep learning curve because you can’t see calories or points just by looking at the food on your plate.
The nerdy, Fitbit-loving side of me also gets a kick out of visualizing how our daily meals measure up to the DASH diet goals (hence the radar graphs in the What We Ate posts). That doesn’t mean you need to do all this tracking and graphing. Eyeballing and checking the boxes on a sheet of paper totally works, too.
5) DASH diet is not expensive.
Or shall I say, it doesn’t have to be expensive. I mean, you can follow the DASH diet by feasting exclusively on low-fat artisan Greek yogurts from free-range camels, artful heirloom vegetables from a environmentally conscious CSA and imported ancient grains from some exotic country (the DASH diet being flexible and all), but you don’t need to make it expensive.
Following the DASH diet almost inevitably requires you to cook most of your meals, because otherwise a) it’s pretty hard to stay under the daily limit for fat, sodium and sugar; and b) you never really know how much of what you are eating, which makes it impossible to know whether you are following the DASH diet guidelines reasonably well or not. So, home cooking it is. Barring some exceptional circumstances, cooking at home is cheaper than eating out. At least in my experience, our food cost has gone down quite a bit since we started following the DASH diet more closely. Since I am also flirting with the idea of financial independence, that was a nice surprise bonus!
There are some diets designed to fatten the bank accounts of some entrepreneurial entity. These would tell you to purchase expensive smoothies or meal delivery services for health, weight loss, endless glory or whatever. These Wouldn’t be the best diet in my book. For DASH diet, all you need is a decent kitchen and grocery store.
There are also diets known to be expensive, even if you mostly cook at home. Paleo diet comes to mind, because steaks = moola. Not DASH diet. DASH diet favors foods that tend to be cheaper: Grains, veggies, eggs and dairy. So, yeah, it’s a nicely inexpensive diet.
6) DASH diet doesn’t “ban” anything…
I dislike diets that label certain foods as “bad” and ban them. Elimination diet does have a place for people with health problems, but for me, trying to avoid certain foods completely is a fool’s errand. That approach usually finds me sneaking and gorging on the very food I’m not supposed to be eating. (Hello, ice cream!) The very concept that I cannot eat something somehow makes that thing that much more compelling. And, really, stoicism is not the kind of life I want to live!
Instead, when following the DASH diet, you always have room for things you like, as long as you eat them in moderation. Even if you go over the recommended daily limit on some days, that’s okay. There’s no shame or self-loathing attached to it in this framework. Having a juicy burger one day is not a failure. A greasy slice of pizza isn’t the end of the world. The only thing you need to do is to look ahead and course-correct. This is why you find many instances of “balancing things out” on this blog.
7) …not even beer
Yes, it’s important. 🙂 Consistent with its general philosophy of “everything in moderation,” DASH diet has a line item for alcohol. One glass of wine or a pint of beer a day can totally be a part of your healthy diet. If beer is proof that God loves us, this, right here, is proof that DASH diet is the best diet on earth.
8) And perhaps most importantly, this: DASH diet seems to work.
Theology aside, many studies have shown the DASH diet to significantly lower blood pressure, its original aim. The reduction in blood pressures in single digits seems insignificant to my untrained eyes, but that’s a different story. The best diet has to achieve its goal, whatever it is. And DASH diet squarely checks that box.
DASH diet’s effects on other conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity are less certain, it seems, but the overall agreement in the scientific/medical community seems to be that it’s a generally good, healthy diet for most people.
Aside from that, I lost the weight I wanted to lose, even though DASH is not supposed to be a weight loss diet and it wasn’t my primary focus. (To be clear, I didn’t lose a huge amount. It was just the 5-6 lb I gained while in grad school part time while working full time. I lost it gradually over the course of maybe 2-3 months.) It felt as though the DASH diet helped me get back to my healthy equilibrium in the most gentle, natural way possible. To me, this is sign that DASH diet is a good guideline to follow for the long term.
What do you think?
I hope that was enough to make you at least consider the DASH diet as a framework for healthy eating, even if you don’t think it’s the best diet. What do you think?