DASH Diet vs. Other Diets: Which Is Best?

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The DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is widely recognized as a healthy eating plan by nutrition and health professionals. It consistently ranks high on the list of best diets by U.S. News and World Report and has been widely studied by nutrition researchers who investigate the health benefits associated with it.

But the DASH diet isn't a perfect eating plan for everyone. The diet requires that you cut back on your sodium intake—which is challenging for many people who are accustomed to eating processed convenience foods. Before choosing this program, see how it compares to other diets that are often recommended for healthy eating.

The 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the DASH Diet number 2 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 4.1/5.

USDA Recommendations

Nutrient Balance

When you follow the DASH Diet, you can expect to consume both macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, protein) in line with recommendations provided by the USDA. You will also benefit from consuming adequate amounts of important micronutrients including fiber and important vitamins and minerals.

For example, the USDA 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults should consume about 45% to 65% of their total calories from carbohydrates. On the DASH eating plan, you will consume about 55% of your total calories from carbohydrate.

Also, when choosing carbs to consume the DASH plan recommends that you select whole grains (such as whole-grain bread or whole wheat pasta) instead of refined grains (such as white bread or white pasta). By doing so, you are likely to reach the recommended intake of dietary fiber. The USDA recommends that adult men and women consume about 22–33 grams of fiber per day. On the DASH Diet, you will consume 34–37 grams of fiber per day.

Another source of healthy carbohydrates (and fiber) on the DASH eating plan is fruits and vegetables. The DASH plan provides recommendations for the number of servings of fruits and vegetables to consume each day based on your total calorie intake per day. You'll consume three to six servings of vegetables and three to six servings of fruit. These recommendations not only meet USDA recommendations but also help you to reach your recommended intake of important vitamins and minerals.

Your fat intake on the DASH Diet is moderate. This may help some people stick to the eating plan. When following the program, you can expect to consume about 28% to 30% of your total calories from fat. The USDA recommends that adults consume 20% to 35% of total calories from fat.

Lastly, your protein intake on the DASH diet aligns with recommended guidelines. The USDA advises that adults consume 10% to 35% of total calories from protein. On the DASH diet, it is recommended that you choose lean sources of protein. In doing so, you should consume about 18% of your calories from protein.

Sodium

The distinguishing feature of the DASH Diet is the reduced-sodium recommendation. According to data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans consume an average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day. The USDA recommends that Americans consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day as part of a healthy eating pattern.

On the DASH diet, there are two sodium levels that you can follow.

When you first begin, you are allowed 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day or about one teaspoon of salt. By eating more fruits and vegetables (which are naturally low in sodium) and reducing your intake of processed foods, it is likely that you will reach this level.

DASH experts also advise that you remove the salt shaker from the table.

Once you have successfully reached this level, the DASH Diet plan suggests that you talk to your healthcare provider about gradually lowering your intake to 1,500 mg a day. If you are following the DASH Diet to lower your blood pressure, this may be the level you want to reach.

Variety

One of the benefits of choosing the DASH Diet is that it programs variety into your eating plan. While some eating plans for improved health or weight loss provide a calorie allowance each day, the DASH eating plan recommends that you consume a certain number of servings of foods that fall into a wide range of food groups.

Each day on the DASH program, you'll consume primarily grains, vegetables, fruits, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, lean protein (meats, poultry, legumes, and fish), nuts, and seeds. These food groups align with those recommended by the USDA.

Fats and oils are consumed in moderation and limited sweets (those that are low in fat) are allowed. These recommendations are also in line with those provided by the USDA.

Calories

To determine the right number of servings to consume each day on the DASH Diet, you'll first figure out your appropriate calorie intake. There are several levels provided. You'll estimate your caloric intake based on age, gender and activity level (sedentary, moderately active, or active).

For women, recommended calorie levels range from 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day. For men, recommended calorie levels range from 2,000 to 3,100 calories per day. For those trying to lose weight, a 1,200 and 1,400 calorie level is also provided. These calorie levels are consistent with calorie ranges recommended by the USDA.

Another way to determine the number of calories you need each day to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, you can use a calorie calculator to estimate your number.

Similar Diets

The DASH Diet is similar in some ways to other highly regarded diets including the Mediterranean Diet, The Mayo Clinic Diet, and the Flexitarian Diet. However, it is the only popular diet that specifically targets sodium levels.

DASH Diet

General nutrition: Similar to the Mediterranean, Flexitarian, and Mayo Clinic diets, there is a strong emphasis on eating a variety of nutritious foods on the DASH Diet. Also similar to other programs listed here, you can expect to consume a reasonable number of calories each day to reach or maintain a healthy weight. However, on this eating plan, you will also reduce your sodium intake. This eating style also encourages you to consume less fat. The DASH Diet does not specifically place on emphasis on healthier fat choices (such as plant-based oils) but instead focuses on reducing your overall intake.

Health benefits: The DASH Diet has been studied extensively and has been shown to reduce blood pressure in those with hypertension and those with normal blood pressure. In fact, researchers have suggested that "the DASH dietary approach might be the most effective dietary measure to reduce blood pressure among hypertensive and pre-hypertensive patients based on high-quality evidence."

And those who follow the eating plan can expect other health benefits. Further research has found that the DASH diet helps to reduce LDL cholesterol, and may improve other cardiovascular risk factors, as well . The DASH diet has been shown to be an effective management strategy for diabetes and research has even shown that the DASH diet may reduce the risk of gout in men.

In addition to studies supporting the DASH diet specifically, research has consistently found that reducing your sugar intake, eliminating heavily processed, sodium-rich foods, and increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables leads to a wide range of health benefits.

Weight loss: While you can follow a lower-calorie target plan on the DASH diet, the primary emphasis is not on weight loss. Furthermore, studies investigating the DASH diet don't focus on weight loss, but rather on other health outcomes. So it can be hard to tell how the DASH diet compares to other diets when you're trying to lose weight.

The DASH diet does not include a quick weight loss phase offered by programs like the Mayo Clinic Diet.

Sustainability: The DASH Diet may be harder to maintain than other diets because it limits both fat and sodium—two ingredients that are enjoyed by many Americans. You will also have to substantially cut back on convenience foods which many people are used to eating.

For this reason and for several others, the DASH diet can be challenging to stick to. A study investigating DASH diet compliance found that people have a hard time sticking to the program and need more than just counseling to stick with it for the long term.

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet is ranked as the best diet overall by U.S. News and World Report. However, it is not considered to be a "diet" for weight loss or improved health, but rather a wellness-based eating program that promotes healthy food choices inspired by meals served in Mediterranean countries.

General Nutrition: You'll consume a wide variety of foods on the Mediterranean diet with an emphasis on plant-based choices. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based oils are encouraged. Plant-based proteins such as nuts, seeds, and legumes are encouraged, as well as fish and lean meat (in moderation).

Like the DASH Diet, there is no calorie target to meet on this eating plan. Unlike the DASH Diet, there are no recommended servings or food groups. You are likely to consume more fat on the Mediterranean diet, however, the fats are likely to be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats which are considered to be better for you than saturated fat.

Health Benefits: Like DASH, the Mediterranean diet has been widely studied. This diet also has known health benefits including a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, certain cancers, obesity, and diabetes. The Mediterranean diet is also associated with healthier aging.

Weight Loss: The Mediterranean diet is not designed for weight loss but you are likely to slim down on the program. Like the DASH program, the food choices that you make while following the Mediterranean diet are associated with a healthy weight. Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats in moderate portion sizes is likely to help you reach and maintain your goal weight.

Studies have shown that this eating program can help you lose weight when it is calorie-restricted, combined with physical activity, and followed for longer than six months. 

Sustainability: There have been a number of research studies investigating adherence to the Mediterranean diet over the long term. Adherence to the program makes it much more likely that you will gain the health benefits associated with it. However, most adherence studies focus on populations in the Mediterranean.

Your ability to stick to this diet may depend in part on your current eating style. If you currently depend on convenience foods (such as microwavable meals) or if you eat a lot of red meat, you may have a hard time adjusting to this plan. However, since it allows for more fat and does not restrict sodium it may be easier to follow than DASH.

Flexitarian Diet

The Flexitarian Diet is a vegetarian diet that allows for more flexibility. This diet is ranked third on the list of best diets by U.S. News and World Report. One version of the diet is based on a book by registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner called "The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life." However, the term flexitarian is also loosely used to refer to any semi-vegetarian eating plan.

General Nutrition: The focus on this diet is on plant-based eating, but some meat is allowed in limited quantities. It is less strict than a traditional vegetarian diet. On the program (like the other eating styles listed) you make food choices that emphasize fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.

When following the Flexitarian book, you'll eat meals that are calorie restricted. Your total daily intake will be about 1,500 calories. You are also likely to meet the recommended intake for macro and micronutrients if you follow the program.

Health Benefits: The Flexitarian Diet has not been studied as extensively as the Mediterranean diet and the DASH Diet. However, there is evidence that a plant-based eating program provides substantial health benefits. Plant-based diets have been associated with lowering your risk for heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. You may also be able to reduce your medication needs on this program.

The eating style may also play a role in the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease.

Weight Loss: Compared to the DASH Diet and the Mediterranean diet, the Flexitarian diet may be more likely to provide weight loss benefits. This diet provides recipes and meal suggestions that are calorie-restricted to promote the energy deficit needed for weight loss. Some studies have shown that a semi-vegetarian diet can improve metabolic health and help you slim down.

Sustainability: While this eating program is likely to be more sustainable than a strictly vegetarian diet (especially for meat eaters) some people may have a hard time sticking to the calorie limitations. However, recipes are provided in the book and foods are easily found in most grocery stores, which also helps to make this program sustainable.

Mayo Clinic Diet

The Mayo Clinic Diet is ranked number six on the list of best diets by U.S. News and World Report. This subscription eating program includes two phases: "Lose It" and "Live It." To follow the program, you sign up for a $4/week subscription on the diet program website.

General Nutrition: Like the DASH Diet, this program focuses on servings of food rather than calories (although calorie goals are provided). Eating proper portion sizes is strongly encouraged. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other nutritious foods are recommended. It is also recommended that you choose foods low in sodium.

Men can plan to consume between 1,400 to 1,800 calories per day. Women can plan to consume 1,200 to 1,600 calories on the plan. The foods recommended on this plan will help you to reach the USDA recommendations for good nutrition.

Health Benefits: The Mayo Clinic Diet is based on the healthy eating program developed by heart health experts at the Mayo Clinic. While there are no formal studies that investigate the branded program, the eating principles that the eating plan is based on are those that will help you to boost heart health and reduce your risk for chronic disease.

The eating plan also aligns with food recommendations made by the American Diabetes Association.

Weight Loss: The Mayo Clinic Diet is designed to help you reach and maintain a healthy weight. Not only are you provided with a calorie goal but other tools are included in the program such as interactive tools (food tracker, journal, etc), personalized meal plans, motivational tips, and exercise advice. The fact that the program is comprehensive may help you to lose weight more effectively on this plan.

Also, the Mayo Clinic Diet includes a jump-start phase where you are likely to lose more weight than a traditional diet. This phase is helpful for some people who need a motivational boost to stick to their plan. After the initial phase, weight loss is likely to occur at a rate of one to two pounds per week.

Sustainability: This eating plan is more likely to be sustainable than some comparable plans for weight loss. For those who are on a budget, the $4/week price is a selling point. Many commercial plans require you to pay more. The foods you'll consume are easy to find in most grocery stores and allowances are made for occasional indulgence which can help to boost adherence.

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