Dieting's dark horse

The DASH diet could be the best meal plan you've never heard of.

While the Dukan has a future queen (Kate Middleton) and the South Beach had a former President (Bill Clinton), the DASH diet doesn’t need a dignitary to give it street cred. The US News and World Report has placed the plan on the top of its first-ever "Best Diet" rankings, plucking it out of relative obscurity.

The DASH diet has a decidedly unsexy name (it stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension”) and backstory: First developed in the early ‘90s by a team sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, it was created to lower blood pressure and curb hypertension. Yet a group of 22 doctors and nutritionists deemed it 2012’s best diet on the grounds of short-term and long-term weight loss, easiness to follow, safety and nutritional completeness. There is no gimmicky element — no "eat what you want" day or reliance on cabbage soup — you just lessen your salt intake and follow a set daily schedule.

"The diet is based on foods that are less likely to be prepackaged and highly processed, so a little bit of planning is important for making it easy to follow,” says Marla Heller, MS, RD, who translated the NIH’s clinical findings into an easier-to-implement plan with her 2007 book, The DASH Diet Action Plan. "The plan will develop new habits that are actually self-sustaining, because they make you feel so much better."

The DASH diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, lean meats and heart-healthy fats. A typical day on the DASH allows for 1,500-2,000 calories and requires you to eat 7-8 servings of grains, 4-5 servings of vegetables, 4-5 servings of fruit, 2-3 servings of lowfat dairy, 2 or fewer servings of lean meat and 2-3 servings of fats or oils. Each week you're allowed 4-5 servings of nuts, seeds and dry beans and five low-fat treats.

But what really makes the DASH better than the rest? According to Jeffrey Morrison, M.D., a member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board, "The competition is stiff, however, the DASH diet is really a well-balanced program that is safe for just about anyone to follow without worrying about harmful side effects, such as ones that occur with fad low-calorie diets."

Following any prescribed plan can be difficult, but the DASH’s drawbacks are slight. The toughest transitions are increasing your fruit and vegetable intake (most Americans only get 2-3 servings per day) and drastically cutting back on sodium.

"We do need salt to function, but the more salt a person consumes, the more water that stays in the body and therefore in the blood," says Keri Glassman, a New York City-based nutritionist and Q advisory board member. "This means higher blood volume, which means higher blood pressure. Blood pressure keeps our circulatory system pumping, but overly high blood pressure does damage to blood vessels and stresses the heart."

Considering giving the plan a try? Keys to success are cooking at home, grocery shopping conscientiously and learning to prepare food properly in a lower-sodium, lower-fat fashion. Glassman suggests planning meals and preparing dinners on Sundays for the week ahead, since "grocery shopping at 6 pm on a Tuesday is never sustainable." Also, keep quick healthy foods around the house that can be eaten raw.

While no diet is a "one-size-fits-all" solution, the DASH wins points for its balanced approach — and may be a good option for people who've tried and failed with yo-yo diet plans in the past. According to Heller, one major plus of following a healthy meal plan for low-blood pressure is that weight will also improve — and as weight goes down, so does blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. Which is something cabbage soup (or even a boatload of Secret Service) can't guarantee.