Have you been looking for a heart-healthy way to eat that is balanced, flexible and requires no special foods? If so, the DASH eating plan might be for you.

“DASH” stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. By following the DASH eating plan, individuals may be able to reduce blood pressure and cardiovascular disease risk factors and find a heart-healthy eating style for life. This plan is simple and recommends:

• Eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

• Choosing fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts and vegetable oils.

• Cutting back on foods that are high in saturated fats, such as red meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel and palm oils.

• Choosing foods that are lower in sodium.

• Limiting sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages.

The DASH diet was originally implemented as a dietary plan to lower blood pressure. At that time, research was conducted to test the benefits of the DASH diet. The results of these studies proved that the DASH diet lowered blood pressure and LDL (low-density lipoprotein), also known as “bad” cholesterol in the blood. These are two major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Now, we know that the DASH eating plan has many advantages for health, including that it may reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease, some cancers and kidney stone formation. Focusing on whole foods, this heart-healthy plan is high in fiber and low in saturated fats and added sugars. It can be a way of eating for the whole family. This heart-healthy eating plan also provides nutrients that are in short supply in many Americans’ diets.

When following the DASH eating plan, it is important to choose foods that are:

• Low in saturated fats.

• Rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber and protein.

• Lower in sodium.

Let’s review each food group to learn the recommended daily and weekly servings needed to follow the DASH eating plan for a 2,000- calorie-a-day diet.

In the grains group, it is recommended to consume 6 to 8 servings per day. Some examples of a serving size from this group include 1 slice of bread, 1 ounce dry cereal, or 1/2 cup cooked cereal, rice or pasta. These should be mostly whole grains.

Grains are divided into two subgroups, whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel — the bran, germ and endosperm. Examples of whole grains include whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and quinoa. Whole grains are good sources of fiber and important nutrients.

Refined grains have been milled, a process that removes the bran and germ. This removes dietary fiber, iron and many B vitamins. Some examples of refined grain products are white flour, de-germed cornmeal, white bread and white rice.

The DASH eating plan recommends 4 to 5 servings per day of both vegetables and fruits. A serving is 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables, 1/2 cup cut raw or cooked vegetable, 1 medium size whole fruit, 1/4 cup dried fruit or 1/2 cup fresh, frozen or canned fruit. These are great sources of potassium, which has been proved to help lower blood pressure. Choose fresh, frozen, canned and dried sources. If you choose canned, buy lower sodium vegetables and fruits in their own juice.

DASH also recommends choosing 2 to 3 servings per day of fat-free or low-fat dairy products. One cup of milk or yogurt or 1-1/2 ounces of cheese is considered a serving size. Dairy products contain calcium, which is important for bone health and instrumental in blood pressure regulation. Choosing fat-free or low-fat dairy will lower your intake of saturated fats, which are limited for heart health. Milk, buttermilk, cheeses and yogurt are all available in lower-fat versions.

DASH recommends getting 6 ounces or less of meats, poultry and fish each day. When eating meat, choose lean selections such as fish, skinless chicken and turkey, pork tenderloin, extra-lean ground beef, and round or sirloin beef cuts. Meats do not naturally contain sodium, but it is commonly added in the prepared and ready-to-eat processed versions of these foods. For example, a plain fish filet is lower in sodium than fish sticks, and a chicken breast is lower in sodium than a chicken patty. Further, limit smoked or processed meats, such as deli meats. Also, if you buy canned tuna and chicken, choose the lower-sodium options.

DASH suggest eating no more than 2 to 3 daily servings of fats and oils. Select soft margarines, vegetable oils like olive and canola, and low-fat mayonnaise and salad dressings. A good rule to follow is to choose liquid oils over solid fats. Examples of 1 serving include 1 teaspoon soft margarine, 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon low-fat mayonnaise or 2 tablespoons light salad dressing.

Additional recommendations include eating no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Read the nutrition label to determine how much sodium is in a food. To lower your blood pressure even more, limit daily sodium consumption to 1,500 milligrams.

Throughout the course of the week, the DASH eating plan also recommends consuming a total of 4 to 5 servings of nuts, seeds and legumes. Almonds, walnuts, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas (garbanzos) and sunflower seeds are great options, though try using the unsalted or low-salt varieties. Nuts provide monounsaturated fats, the type that helps lower your bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase your good cholesterol (HDL).

Also consume 5 or less servings of sweets and sweetened beverages each week. Satisfy your sweet cravings with fresh or dried fruits, ices or sorbet. Layer low-fat yogurt with granola and fruit for a sweet treat. Try pudding made with fat-free milk or enjoy graham crackers with peanut butter. Substitute soda with an unsweetened beverage that you enjoy such as tea, coffee, low-fat milk or water. This includes water flavored with lemon or other fruits.

Overall, the guidelines in the DASH eating plan include choosing foods low in saturated fats, lower in sodium, and rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber and protein. Remember that these recommendations are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. The number of servings you should consume will depend on your daily calorie needs. Your age and physical activity level will determine how many calories you need each day.

Here are a few additional tips to help you follow the DASH lifestyle:

• Cook with fresh foods or choose frozen or canned foods that contain no added sodium. Many canned foods and flavored frozen foods, when seasoned, have a significant amount of sodium added to them.

• Include a vegetable at both lunch and dinner. Try to add a vegetable at breakfast with a smoothie that contains spinach or a vegetable omelet.

• Include a fruit at each meal and snack, and consider this your dessert at these meals.

• Limit your meat intake to 6 ounces or less each day and plan meatless meals at least one or two times a week.

• Use fat-free or low-fat dairy products in your coffee.

• Eat more legumes (beans, peas and lentils) as a protein source.

• To limit your fat intake, cut your serving sizes of butter, margarine and salad dressings in half. Use vegetable oil in place of a solid fat in your skillet.

• Snack choices can include fat-free or low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit, raw vegetables, hummus or bean spreads, unsalted plain popcorn, homemade whole-grain cereal mixes with nuts, seeds, and dried fruits, whole-grain crackers with part-skim Mozzarella string cheese and low-fat, whole-grain pretzels.

• Read food labels and choose items that are made from whole food ingredients. These will be lower in sodium, sugar and fat.

The DASH eating plan is just one part of living a heart-healthy lifestyle. Combine it with other lifestyle changes such as getting regular physical activity, managing and coping with stress, getting enough sleep, limiting alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy weight, and quitting if you smoke.

Introducing major change into our daily lives can be very challenging. Choosing a heart healthy lifestyle is like setting off on a journey — it requires a step-by-step approach. Educators with Penn State Extension understand that making those changes can be challenging and have designed a program called “A Journey to a Healthier Heart,” which is aimed at helping people adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle. To register, visit extension.psu.edu/heart. Those who join the Heart Healthy 12-Week Journey will receive weekly emails that include meal planning tips, benefits of keeping a food journal, information about heart healthy food choices, and how to help reduce blood pressure and manage your cholesterol.

Nancy Routch is a Penn State Extension educator in Cumberland County, and Dori Owczarzak is Penn State Extension educator in Washington County.

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