How I Set up My Own DASH Diet Plan

When I started thinking about following the NIH-endorsed DASH diet back in April 2017, I read up a bit on the details of the plan. In one relatively easy-to-follow page, NIH provides almost all of the information you need to get started on the DASH eating plan, but I did need to adjust some things so I can follow this way of eating for the long term. Here are the steps I took to understand the basics and tweak the DASH diet for myself:

Determine the Caloric Needs

Based on my age (late 30s), sex (female), activity level (sedentary on weekdays, moderately active on weekends), I determined my daily caloric needs: 1,800. My weekend activity level can be a lot higher, but I decided to keep things simple and use the weekday as the basis. This led me to the table of food servings goal for someone who eats that many calories a day. The table on the NIH’s DASH page looked like this:

Daily Goals (Servings) Weekly Goals
Grains Veggies Fruits Dairy Meats & Fish Fat & Oil Sodium Nuts & Beans Sweets
6 4-5 4-5 2-3 6 2-3 2300 mg 4 5

So, I’m supposed to eat 6 servings of whole grains a day while limiting the meat/fish intake to less than 6 servings, for example. On the weekly side, I can eat 5 servings of sweets (i.e., added sugar) per week. That seemed moderately difficult for someone with sweet tooth like me, but maybe doable.

Understand the Serving Sizes and Categories

Next, I looked at the helpful table that lists what counts as one serving of each food group. (It’s still on the same NIH DASH page.) This table was full of surprises. For example, I’d assumed that 1 serving of grain = 1 cup of cooked rice. Wrong. It’s actually ½ cup of cooked rice or pasta, which made sense once I thought about it–I don’t think I can eat 6 bowls of rice per day!

Strawberries & PeachesThere were other surprises. One serving of fruits was bigger than I thought: to get one serving of fruits, you need to eat a whole fruit or ½ cup of cut-up fruit. 4-5 servings of fruits started to feel like waaaaaay more fruits than I can manage in a day as fruits are not something I eat a lot of. (And I must admit, a diet this heavy on fruits would get expensive pretty fast!) Conversely, one serving of meat and fish was way smaller than I thought. The conventional serving of meat is “the size of your palm,” but that’s about 3 oz of meat, while one DASH serving of meat is 1 oz, cooked. That was a surprisingly tiny amount, though achievable unless I go the meat n’ potato route all the time.

There were some oddities, too. One teaspoon of olive oil is a fat/oil equivalent of one tablespoon of regular salad dressing. I know from making my own dressings that there’s more olive oil than one teaspoon in a tablespoon of salad dressing. Unless I’m using bulkier ingredients like grated onion in my dressing, usually about half the volume of a salad dressing is oil, with the other half the acidic ingredients like vinegar or lemon juice.

Read the Fine Prints

Well, maybe “the fine prints” is not the right word here, but I do recommend reading all the text in and around these tables. There were a lot of “oh by the way, you should do this and avoid that” type of recommendations. You probably know most of them already, if you’ve been exposed to some level of food education. Stuff like “low-fat or non-fat dairy is better” and “go for chicken breast rather than fatty cuts of beef,” that sort of thing.

Tweak the DASH Eating Plan for Your Lifestyle and Preference

Asparagus & FiddleheadsI thought the servings goal table was a bit more complicated than it needed to be. I also immediately knew that there were some goals recommendations that wouldn’t fit my preference and culinary style, like the large amount of fruits. So I decided to tweak the goals a bit without killing its core. I wanted the goals to be as simple as possible and suit my life. Both Hubby and I love eating good food, and I decided that certain restrictions would drive me away from gradual improvements of our diet. I may come back to the goals later and introduce some of these “not for now” items into our lives, but for now, this is what I’ve decided to aim for:

Daily Goals (Servings)

Grains

Veggies & Fruits Dairy Meats & Fish Fat & Oil Sodium Nuts & Beans Sweets
6 8-10 2-3 6 2-3 2300 mg 0.75

0.75

 

  1. I converted everything into daily goals for simplicity’s sake, rather than have some daily and some weekly goals.
  2. I combined the fruits with vegetables, with the goal of 8-10 servings a day. They serve similar nutritional purposes (and some of what we consider vegetables are actually fruits anyway), so I figured this simplification won’t do too much harm. Combined, I can aim for 8-10 servings, but I wouldn’t ever get to 4-5 servings of fruits a day.
  3. I decided full-fat dairy is acceptable. This… might be on a shaky ground: I just don’t like the low- or non-fat milk, and I know I wouldn’t drink milk if I had to go low- or non-fat, which would almost entirely eliminate my source of calcium, which wouldn’t be good.
  4. I also decided one egg a day is fine, for a few reasons. (DASH diet recommends limiting the eggs to 4 a week.) Neither of us has a problem with cholesterol. An egg for breakfast keeps me going until lunch, and egg dishes are an easy vehicle for a serving or two of vegetables.
  5. I would follow the nuts & beans category only very loosely, mostly because when I rely on beans and tofu, it would naturally cut down on the amount of meats we’d eat, and that’s not a bad thing.

Remaining Questions

There are some things I still wonder about. Some are about foods that fall into more than one category, like peanut butter. Do I count it toward “fat and oil” or “nuts and beans?” Or both? (I lean toward the latter, when I remember to–otherwise it goes into “fat and oil.”) Are mushrooms vegetables? (I think so.)

Others are more cultural. The DASH table rightly focuses on food items common in American diet, so common ingredients in other cuisines might be missing. Case in point: Coconut milk. It’s obviously not dairy, though it’s sometimes treated as a milk substitute. I know coconut milk is pretty high in fat. Do I count it toward “fat and oil?” And if so, how much is one serving? I have no idea! Another example: Seaweed. Is that a vegetable? I’d probably put it there, because it doesn’t really fit anywhere else, but again, how much is one serving?

The DASH Trifecta: Ready to Cook and Eat?

But I don’t stress out about small mysteries too much; the important points of DASH diet are pretty simple:

  1. Use whole grains as well as lots of vegetables and fruits as the basis of your diet
  2. Eat lean meats and fish, low-fat dairy, oil/fat and sweets with moderation
  3. Limit sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day

It took me a couple of hours to understand the details and adjust the goals to make them achievable for me and Hubby, but overall it wasn’t a difficult process. (This easy adaptability is another beauty of the DASH plan in my book.) And I was ready to start cooking!

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