Little-known Dash diet ranked highest among healthy eating plans

The little-known Dash diet is consistently ranked highest among healthy eating plans, but what makes it different from all of the others? Jeanette Wang investigates

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 9:42am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 10:21am

Though it may sound like another quick-fix fad diet, the Dash diet is anything but. The eating plan - short for dietary approaches to stop hypertension - is proven to lower blood pressure, and may also aid weight loss. For the fourth straight year, the Dash diet has topped the US News best diets chart, a sparkling testament to its reliability and efficacy.

The list of 32 diets, released this month, was developed by a panel of experts in diet, nutrition, obesity, food psychology, diabetes and heart disease.

[Those in Asia] have lower rates of cancer, heart diseases than Americans
US NEWS magazine diet report

Few people have heard of the Dash diet, which was developed by the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. That's probably down to its unsexy name, and the less-than-unique theory behind it. But the diet deserves more attention, especially as the incidence of hypertension increases with a modern lifestyle.

The Dash diet requires no special foods or starvation. It's based on age-old common sense about balanced nutrition and calorie intake in relation to age and activity levels.

Followers of the plan load up on foods, such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy, and stay away from red meat, sweets and salt. The diet is high in potassium, magnesium, calcium and antioxidants, which are crucial to fending off hypertension.

Rigorous studies set the Dash diet apart from other nutritional regimens that don't deliver, and may even threaten your health.

In research released last September by the University of Michigan's Frankel Cardiovascular Centre, elderly heart failure patients who followed the Dash diet for 21 days saw a drop in blood pressure similar to taking anti-hypertension medicine.

In another study published in 2012, in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 144 sedentary, obese or overweight adults, who had high blood pressure and were not on medication, were randomly split into three groups.

The groups either took the Dash diet alone, the Dash diet in combination with weight-loss counselling and aerobic exercise, or did not change their diet and exercise habits.

After four months, those who took the diet in combination with weight-loss counselling and exercise lost an average of 9kg, while weight remained stable in the other two groups. All participants who followed the Dash diet had significant reductions in blood pressure.

Other research has shown the diet to increase "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and decrease "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides, a fatty substance that has been linked to heart disease.

The Dash diet scored 4.1 out of a possible five, based on ratings in seven categories: ease to follow, ability to produce short-term and long-term weight loss, nutritional completeness, safety, and potential for preventing and managing diabetes and heart disease.

The Dukan and Paleo diets, which are both heavy on protein, tied for last place in the rankings with an overall score of just 2.0.

Surprisingly, the vegan diet came in down the list at 18, with an overall rating of three. In spite of its healthy halo, the experts felt it was extremely restrictive and may not provide enough of some nutrients. But the diet did score quite high marks for diabetes and heart disease prevention.

The traditional Asian diet fared better at 11th - a tie with the vegetarian diet - with an overall score of 3.5. The report authors say the Asian diet may aid weight loss, disease prevention and optional health. The theory, the magazine report says, is that Asians tend to have lower rates of cancer, heart disease and obesity than Americans, and they typically live longer. Researchers suspect this is largely due to their diet: a low-fat, healthy eating style that emphasises rice, vegetables, fresh fruit and fish, with little red meat.

If they saw how Hongkongers eat, perhaps the authors would change their minds.

If you're trying to stick to a diet for the Lunar New Year, here's a look at the best and worst plans out there, whether your goal is good health or a hot body.


1. Dash (Dietary approaches to stop hypertension)

Overall score: 4.1

Type: balanced

Theory: see above

2. TLC (therapeutic lifestyle changes)

Overall score: 4

Type: low-fat

Theory: you'll eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or non-fat dairy products, fish and skin-off poultry. No more than 7 per cent of daily calories come from saturated fat, and no more than 200mg of cholesterol come from food. By cutting back sharply on fat, in particular saturated fat, and limiting daily dietary cholesterol while increasing fibre intake, the diet aids cholesterol management, often without medication. It was created by the US National Institutes of Health.

3. Mayo Clinic

Overall score: 3.9

Type: balanced

Theory: no food group is completely off-limits. You'll shed from 3kg to 5kg in the first two weeks - a phase where you don't count calories, and can snack on unlimited fruits and veggies. During the next phase, you'll balance calorie needs, and continue to lose 1kg a week until you hit your target weight.

4. Mediterranean

Overall score: 3.9

Type: balanced

Theory: a diet low in red meat, sugar and saturated fat, and high in fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, beans, olive oil, and flavourful herbs and spices. Plus a little red wine, some fish and seafood, and a good serving of physical activity.

This is how people in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea supposedly live longer, and suffer less from cardiovascular ailments and cancer. They reportedly have a lower likelihood of being overweight or obese, too.

5. Weight Watchers

Overall score: 3.9

Type: balanced

Theory: every food is assigned a points value based on its nutritional make-up and how hard your body has to work to burn it off.

Choices that fill you up the longest "cost" the least, and nutritionally dense foods cost less than empty calories.

You can eat whatever you want, provided you stick to your daily points target, a number based on your gender, weight, height and age. Done right, you'll drop up to 1kg a week.


28. The Fast diet

Overall score: 2.5

Type: low-calorie

Theory: by fasting intermittently - cutting calories to 25 per cent of your normal intake for two days a week - the body is fooled into thinking it may be experiencing a famine, switches into maintenance mode, and burns energy from fat stores.

What's bad: experts cited a lack of evidence to support long-term weight loss and questioned the feasibility of sticking with the plan for an extended period.

The diet also scored near the bottom for nutritional completeness, since it lacks sufficient guidance for the five non-fasting days (you can basically eat whatever you want). It's also not considered appropriate for anyone who becomes light-headed without food, or for diabetics, who would be at risk of low blood sugar.

29. Atkins diet

Overall score: 2.3

Type: low-carb

Theory: limiting carbs makes the body turn to stored fat.

What's bad: experts gave it low ratings for safety and heart health, and were only slightly more positive about how easy it is to follow and its prospects for long-term weight loss. A sample Atkins diet evaluated by the panel had excessive total and saturated fat and too little whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

29. Raw food diet

Overall score: 2.3

Type: low-calorie

Theory: eating fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds in their whole, natural state is more nutritious, because cooking obliterates most of the vitamins in food, and nearly all of the immunity-boosting plant nutrients.

What's bad: experts judged it extremely difficult to follow, and low on nutritional completeness and safety (due to the risk of food poisoning from eating raw or undercooked ingredients).

31. Dukan diet

Overall score: 2.0

Type: high-protein

Theory: when protein supplies the majority of a diet, the body is forced to burn stored fat as an alternative fuel. Fast weight loss ensues.

What's bad: because of the high amount of protein, the kidneys need to work especially hard, and that could injure them, or worsen existing kidney problems. The experts were sharply critical of the diet's lack of nutritional completeness, how difficult it is to follow, its inability to prevent or control diabetes and heart disease, and even its lack of safety.

31. Paleo diet

Overall score: 2.0

Type: high-protein

Theory: modern diets containing processed food are the reason for many ailments. So going back to the Paleolithic period and eating like hunter-gatherers - that is, eating lots of animal protein and plants - is the solution.

What's bad: experts were critical of its lack of nutritional completeness, its cost, and its applicability for weight loss and for preventing or controlling diabetes and heart disease. The diet came out at, or near, the bottom in every category.