The popular DASH diet is well known for its success in combating high blood pressure. In fact, it's consistently ranked among the best diets out there. What's more: A low-calorie version of DASH can also be a healthy way to lose weight.
A relatively restrictive 1,200-calorie DASH diet is on the low end of the daily calories needed by most people. Before starting such a low-calorie plan, consult with your doctor to make sure it's safe and appropriate for your sex, age, current weight and activity level. Keep in mind that men and active women may need more calories to meet their nutritional needs, even while trying to lose weight.
If a 1,200-calorie meal plan is right for you, though, here's how to make it work and still feel satisfied.
What Is the DASH Diet?
The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is a researched diet plan supported by the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute that has been shown to lower blood pressure. The diet is low in fat, including saturated fat, as well as cholesterol, but rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, fiber and protein. It also reduces your intake of sodium, a mineral that, when consumed in excess, can aggravate hypertension.
A June 2019 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine provided some of the most compelling evidence yet of DASH's efficacy. Researchers followed the diets of nearly 4,500 participants over 13 years and found that people under age 75 who followed the DASH diet developed heart failure half as often as those who didn't follow DASH.
The diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables and low-fat or fat-free dairy products and encourages you to eat more fish, poultry, nuts and whole grains. When limiting your calories to 1,200 a day while following DASH, you need to eat a specified number of servings from each of the food groups to ensure you're getting all the nutrients you need for a healthy body and optimal energy levels.
Load Up on Fruits and Veggies
Fruits and vegetables are high in potassium and magnesium, which are nutrients that can help lower blood pressure. They're also full of fiber, which helps control hunger.
On your 1,200-calorie DASH diet, you can have three to four servings of fruit and three to four servings of vegetables each day. A serving equals a medium piece of fruit or a half cup of frozen or canned fruit, and one cup of raw or a half cup of cooked vegetables.
Eat fruits without added sugar and vegetables that are leafy and colorful, such as spinach, peppers and broccoli. Avoid canned vegetables, which often have added sodium, and starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes.
Go Whole Grain
The DASH diet recommends whole grains for most of your grain choices, including brown rice, oats, quinoa and whole-wheat bread. Like fruits and veggies, whole grains are a good source of satiating fiber.
On your low-calorie diet plan, you can have four to five servings of grains each day, with one serving equal to one slice of bread, 1 ounce of cold cereal or a half cup of cooked rice or pasta.
Keep Your Protein Lean
To keep a lid on saturated fat and cholesterol intake, most of your protein choices should be lean, such as fish, poultry and lean red meat. Try to limit your intake to three servings a day, with one serving equal to 1 ounce of meat, fish or poultry or one egg.
Nuts, seeds and legumes are also a source of protein, magnesium and fiber. When following a 1,200-calorie DASH diet, you can have three servings of nuts, seeds or legumes a week. One serving equals one-third of a cup of nuts, 2 tablespoons of seeds or a half cup of legumes, such as kidney or garbanzo beans. Avoid nuts with added salt or sugar, and if you go for canned beans, look for the ones labeled low sodium.
Don't Forget Dairy
As a source of calcium and protein, dairy foods are an important part of the DASH diet. Like other nutrients, calcium may help improve blood pressure control.
Include two to three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy products a day on your 1,200-calorie diet. One serving of dairy equals a cup of milk or yogurt, or 1 1/2 ounces of cheese.
Fat and Sodium
To help keep daily calories under control, stick to just one serving of fat on your low-calorie DASH diet. One serving is equal to 1 teaspoon of margarine or vegetable oil.
Cutting back on your salt intake helps lower blood pressure. Try to limit your daily intake to less than 2,300 milligrams a day, as recommended by the American Heart Association. Read food labels to help track your consumption. Also try to eliminate added salt. Eating mostly whole foods and limiting your intake of processed foods can also help you control your sodium intake.
A 1,200-Calorie DASH Diet Meal Plan
Gabriella Vetere, RD, shows you how to make the most of 1,200 calories in this sample day's worth of meals:
Breakfast (448 calories, 493 mg sodium)
- 1 cup nonfat cottage cheese
- 1 cup fresh blueberries
- 1 cup cooked steel cut oats with 1 tsp. stevia and dash of cinnamon
- 1 decaf latte with 1 cup nonfat milk
Lunch (294 calories, 531 mg sodium)
Snack (196 calories, 162 mg sodium)
Dinner (260 calories, 75 mg sodium)
Totals for the Day: 1198 calories, 1261 mg sodium