It’s the most effective diet no one’s ever heard of. (Photo: Getty Images)
When U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the 35 Best and Worst Diets was published on Tuesday, the top choice left readers scratching their heads. America’s “best” diet wasn’t the popular Mediterranean diet or the oft-Instagrammed Paleo diet. The No. 1 spot went to the DASH Diet, an under-the-radar eating plan that was developed to fight high blood-pressure, but just so happens to help shed pounds as well. Even more impressive: U.S. News gave the diet top grades for a whopping fifth year in a row.
So what is the DASH diet? “DASH” stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The diet comes in three variations—original, weight loss oriented, and vegetarian—and promises to lower blood pressure and reduce risk of cancer, heart disease, heart failure, kidney stones, and diabetes. Sound lofty? Take a look at the diet’s history: in 1992, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) set out to create a guideline that would stop hypertension and prevent heart disease. The NIH spent six years carrying out two diverse, dual-gendered, university-backed studies which confirmed what they had guessed: Dietary patterns can — and do — affect blood pressure. Researchers and doctors put together a list of nutritional guidelines based on their findings, creating the first iteration of the DASH diet.
Related: The Best And Worst Diets In America
“The core DASH diet foods are plentiful amounts of fruits and vegetables, low-fat and nonfat dairy, and nuts, beans, and seeds. To this we add more healthy foods, including lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs, mostly whole grains and heart healthy fats.” Marla Heller, RD, DASH dietitian and author of the new The DASH Diet Younger You, tells Yahoo Health. The most recent version of the diet advocates choosing fresh, non-GMO foods that are low in salt and sugar and emphasize potassium, magnesium, calcium, and fiber.
Why is No. 1? “The DASH diet tops the list of best diets because of its health benefits,” says Heller. “It lowers blood pressure, cholesterol, reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, some cancers, kidney stones, and can reverse or prevent type 2 diabetes. No other diet has this kind of scientific pedigree.”
From a nutritional standpoint, the diet hits all the guidelines generally recommended by doctors to shed pounds and improve health. It doesn’t cut out any major food groups (like the grain-shunning Whole30), and it doesn’t overemphasize any one macronutrient (fat, carbohydrates, or protein).
In a pool filled with extreme diets, DASH is resoundingly gimmick-free. It’s also incredibly flexible. Don’t like the foods in the meal plan? Swap them out for one of the potassium-, magnesium-, and calcium-rich foods on the DASH diet substitutions list.
Related: Should You Try The Whole30 Diet?
It’s worth noting that while the DASH diet’s principles have evolved since its mid-90’s inception, some guidelines seem to contradict recent nutritional developments. Butter made a public comeback in 2014 (some experts even called it the food of the year), but the DASH diet pushes nonfat or low-fat dairy instead. Full-fat advocates argue that whole, unaltered milk is easier to digest for those who are sensitive to lactose, while DASH suggests that lactose-intolerant dieters might be better able to handle skim milk rather that whole milk.
The DASH diet does shun sugar, deemed “evil” by all but banana-loving fruitarians, and echoes recent suggestions to reduce red meat consumption. Heller says the latest version of the diet “takes advantage of updated DASH research, which showed improved blood pressure results by cutting back on the refined carbs and added sugars.”
Why haven’t you heard of it? While other diets offer get-slim-quick tricks that seem (and often are) too good to be true, the DASH diet slides under the radar with calm, rational guidelines and easy-to-follow instructions. People aren’t publicizing it because frankly, it’s a little boring. It’s not grueling enough for a #30DayChallenge—and even if it were, DASH experts think you’ll want to stick around a little longer once you see and feel the results.
Your Next Read: Kale Backlash: Should You Stay Devoted in 2015?