- The DASH diet is the healthiest way to eat, according to the American Heart Association.
- The diet includes low amounts of salt and saturated fats, and focuses on whole foods.
- Registered dietitian Danielle Smith told Insider what to avoid doing when switching to the diet.
The Mediterranean diet may have been voted the healthiest way to eat six times in a row, but what’s known as the DASH diet could be even better, according to experts.
The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, aims to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. It’s usually prescribed to people with hypertension, or high blood pressure, but can also be followed as a general healthy diet.
The diet is low in salt, saturated or trans fats, added sugars, fatty meats, and alcohol, instead prioritizing vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless fish and poultry, nuts and legumes, and non-tropical vegetable oils according to the American Heart Association.
Earlier this year, the AHA rated the DASH diet higher than the hugely popular Mediterranean diet for heart health, because, although similar, the Mediterranean diet does not address added salt and allows alcohol in moderation.
Insider spoke to Danielle Smith, a registered dietitian working with dietitian network Top Nutrition Coaching, about the biggest mistakes she sees people making when they start the DASH diet, and what to do instead.
Starting the diet without a plan
Going all in without a plan is the biggest mistake you can make when starting the DASH diet, Smith said. It’s best to gradually build to following the diet fully by incorporating some DASH diet recipes that sound appetizing into your weekly meals, rather than just throwing away all your high-sodium and processed foods with no plan.
It’s also important to be gracious with yourself when you slip up, which you will do because you’re human, she said.
You should “feel confident going in as opposed to shooting in the dark,” she said.
Believing the marketing on ‘heart healthy’ foods
Some products are marketed as “heart healthy” because they contain oats or are rich in whole grains, such as certain breakfast cereals or granola bars, Smith said. However, these products might not be very nutrient dense and can contain a lot of sugar.
She said: “don’t be lured in by what is marketed to you, because it’s not always healthy.”
Instead, be sure to check that the product actually contains things that are nutritionally helpful, like fiber or protein, using the information on food labels
A dietitian previously explained to Insider how to read nutrition labels.
Drinking too much coffee
Coffee contains antioxidants which are thought to be anti-inflammatory, but Smith said you shouldn’t rely on it for energy throughout the day, especially if you add lots of creamer and sugar to your coffee.
She also said that drinking too much coffee isn’t good if you’re following the diet because you already have hypertension. Insider previously reported on a study that found people with very high blood pressure who drank two or more cups of coffee a day were twice as likely to die from heart problems. However, research suggests people with normal blood pressure can safely drink up to five cups a day without harming their heart, or affecting their cholesterol levels or heart rhythm, according to the UK charity British Heart Foundation.
Not making lifestyle changes alongside the diet
As well as changing your diet, Smith recommended finding ways to move your body throughout the day, because moving more is an easy way to lower blood pressure. This can be as simple as going for walks or standing for parts of the day if going to the gym feels daunting, she said.
She also said that “aiming for half your body weight in ounces of water a day is ideal” to stay hydrated.
Not listening to your body
If you don’t feel well after consuming a certain food, or you just don’t like something, don’t force yourself to eat it and focus on other nutrient dense foods instead, Smith said.
The diet is supposed to be maintainable long term, so it has to work for you and your body — “listen to your body and see how it responds,” she said.
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