Dash vs Mediterranean diet: The 2 most popular healthy diets

Google the best diets and the DASH or Mediterranean diet top of any list. 

DASH vs mediterranean diet

The DASH and Mediterranean diets are called the healthiest diets in the world. So you won’t go wrong with either if your goal is to have a healthy diet. 

But they have different goals and approaches to food. Which is good to know before you try to horseshoe a new diet into your life. In this guide, I’ll go over both diets so you can figure out how they fit into your personal preferences. (Because let’s be real–you don’t want to eat food that sucks. No matter how healthy it is). 

Key Takeaways

  • The DASH and Mediterranean diets are not meal plans. They are dietary patterns. There’s a difference. 
  • The DASH diet helps reduce high blood pressure and prevent hypertension. This reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • The Mediterranean Diet focuses on maintaining healthy blood pressure levels through lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
  • Both diets have lots of fruit, vegetables lean proteins. Both also limit red meats. 
  • Lifestyle matters. Physical activity + a healthy diet will give you (much) better health outcomes. 

The Typical American diet

The typical American diet is (basically) a synonym for an unhealthy diet. We have a lot of foods that are high in trans fats, saturated fat, refined carbs, added sugar and sodium. And portion sizes are huge.

I remember coming home for a visit–I went to the Cheese Cake Factory and got a Shepard’s pie. The plate was huge and when the waitress saw my reaction, she said, “you should see the dinner portion”. I got 3 meals out my Shepard’s pie that week. 

Things are changing though as more people want a healthy lifestyle. But for now, the typical American diet has room to grow before we call it a healthy diet. 

The main issue is the processed foods. Think ready-to-eat meals. Heat-and-serve. Sauces (yep those count). Which makes sense–we’re busy people. We need something that’s quick, convenient, tastes food and is filling. We don’t have time to pop down to the corner market (that doesn’t exist) and pick up today’s bread and vegetables. Plus when we get home from a long work day, cooking a recipe that takes 40+ minutes is the last thing we want to do. 

So of course the market gave us what we needed. Which was a lot of unhealthy foods or unhealthy pairings of foods. It also (unintentionally) gave us chronic health problems. And that’s why diets like the DASH diet exist. To help people reduce their risk for diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and even some cancers. 

Meal Plans vs Dietary Approaches

People ask for meal plans. ALL. THE. TIME. 

But then they never follow them. Which is why your registered dietitian or nutritionist says no whenever someone asks for a meal plan. 

Do you really want me to tell you what to eat? Like “hey you. Eat 1/2 cup of carrots with lunch today. OR ELSE”. 

Didn’t think so. 

Now a dietary approach…that’s more like a guide on how to eat. And it’s what people really need to have a healthy diet. Unless you like eating the same 7 meals for the rest of your life. 

Now let me get off my soapbox and give you the information you came here for: 

What is the DASH Diet?

DASH stands for Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension. And the goal is–you guessed it–to stop hypertension (hypertension is when blood pressure is 130/80 mm Hg or higher). And you stop it through your diet. 

Now, your diet isn’t the only cause of high blood pressure. Genetics and environmental factors are there too. That’s why the DASH diet is usually recommended with other lifestyle changes (like more physical activity and good sleep hygiene). 

But, diet matters. And it’s something you have control over (to an extent). Compared to your genetics, you have way more control over your diet. 

The behind the DASH diet is to focus on whole foods and limit fatty, salty, and sugary foods. 

This nice chart from NIH sums the DASH diet up:

Eating more whole foods and less of the “limit this” foods helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol (so you don’t get hypertension)

Nutrients that Help Lower Blood Pressure (and the DASH diet is full of them)

Sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium are all linked to blood pressure. And all these nutrients come from your diet.

Too much sodium increases your risk for high blood pressure. And that’s why the American Heart Association recommends less than 2300mg of sodium. PER DAY. It’s common for people to go way over that number though. In fact, you can find almost half of your daily sodium in a single meal sometimes. 

But, we still need some sodium because it’s an electrolyte that helps control fluid in and around your cells. You just don’t want too much (all the time). 

How often you eat a lot of sodium is the real problem. The occasional bag of chips you down doesn’t make difference if your overall diet is healthy and balanced.

Calcium and magnesium and potassium are minerals linked to lower blood pressure. So if you’re getting enough of these minerals and keeping your sodium intake to <2300mg, you lower your risk for high blood pressure and hypertension. 

Now where do you find these nutrients?

Foods these nutrients come from (and are DASH diet approved)

This nice chart (also from NIH) is what the DASH diet aims for. 

Food GroupDaily Servings
Grains6–8
Meats, poultry, and fish6 or less
Vegetables4–5
Fruit4–5
Low-fat or fat-free dairy products2–3
Fats and oils2–3
Sodium2,300 mg*
 Weekly Servings
Nuts, seeds, dry beans, and peas4–5
Sweets5 or less

The nice thing about eating your fruits, vegetables, grains and lean proteins is that they are “nutrient dense”. 

Nutrient dense foods have a lot of nutrients for the calories. You can eat one ingredient, but get 3-5 nutrients from it. Energy dense foods are the opposite. High calories, limited nutritional value. 

It’s like the difference between 2% milk and ice cream. Both have calcium. But an 8-oz glass of 2% has 300mg of calcium and 120 calories. Vanilla ice cream has 84mg in a 1/2 cup serving and 137 calories. To get the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk, you’d have to eat like a cup and a half of ice cream (which is 340 calories). 

The best way to figure out if a food is nutrient dense or energy dense is to read the label. (It helps to know how to read a food label the right way). 

For example, foods like spinach, beans, leafy green vegetables, and yogurt have potassium, magnesium and calcium. So you’re getting “bang for your buck” nutrient-wise with these foods. 

Benefits of the DASH diet

The DASH diet can lower blood pressure. Which helps if you have hypertension or at risk for it. 

The DASH diet also helps:

  • Reduce the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. 
  • Improve your lipid profile (total cholesterol, the “good” and “bad” cholesterol, and triglycerides)
  • Weight loss/weight management

It’s not the easiest eating pattern to jump into though. 

Challenges of the DASH diet 

The biggest challenge is eating the recommended daily servings. Especially if the DASH diet is drastically different from your current diet.

Food GroupDaily Servings
Grains6–8
Meats, poultry, and fish6 or less
Vegetables4–5
Fruit4–5
Low-fat or fat-free dairy products2–3
Fats and oils2–3
Sodium2,300 mg (1500mg if you have hypertension)
 Weekly Servings
Nuts, seeds, dry beans, and peas4–5
Sweets5 or less

Let’s look at a serving of veg. A serving size = 1/2 cup if the veg is cooked and 1 cup if it’s raw. 

That means in one day, the DASH diet recommends you to eat 2 cups of vegetables minimum. It doesn’t seem like a lot on paper. But it can feel like a lot on your plate in a single meal when you’re eating other food groups. 

The DASH diet also recommends avoiding alcohol. Which makes Friday night drinks with friends a different vibe. 

For some people, the DASH diet isn’t realistic with their lifestyle. And that’s fine. One of my professors once said “it’s not healthy until it’s eaten.” And she was right. You can plan a week of kale smoothies, salads, and grilled chicken breast…but it doesn’t matter if you’re not eating it. 

And that’s why people look at other healthy diets like the Mediterranean diet. 

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet (aka the Med diet) is another dietary approach. And it’s name from the Mediterranean sea region. This diet is similar to the DASH diet in a lot of ways. It’s full of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and lean protein. 

But unlike the DASH diet, the Mediterranean wasn’t created to address a specific health problem. It just developed along with Mediterranean agriculture and culture. 

It’s focus is whole foods. 

This graphic from the Cleveland Clinic sums up what’s generally in a Mediterranean meal:

Rich in whole foods

Like I said, the Mediterranean diet has lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Basically it’s a lot of whole foods. There also isn’t a lot of red meat or processed meats in this diet. Instead, you’ve got plant-based proteins, poultry, eggs, dairy and fish. 

This Moroccan chickpea and lentil stew is a type of dish you’d find in the Mediterranean diet. Because there are lots of plant-based foods and limited animal products, the Mediterranean diet tends to be low in sodium, trans fats, and saturated fats. Which means it limits the foods and nutrients that are linked to chronic health problems.

Now people do eat things like salami, lamb, and drink wine in the Mediterranean diet. Where would the world be without Italian wine?

But these fatty, salty foods and alcohol are eaten in moderate amounts. Balance and moderation are the foundation for any healthy diet. No one wants to “eat healthy” all the time when that means salads all day. Healthy eating does include foods we call “unhealthy” as long as you’re eating them in moderation. And balancing your whole day or week of eating. 

Another thing the Med diet is rich in is heart healthy fats. Olive oil is life. Seriously. 

Includes heart-healthy fats

When people talk about healthy fats, they mean unsaturated fats. Fats like omega-3 (you find in fish or nuts), and omega-6 (from oil) are unsaturated. And the Mediterranean diet has plenty of these healthy fats. They are in foods like olive oil, nuts, fish, and avocados. 

These fats help lower LDL ( the bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, raise HDL (the good) cholesterol, and this helps reduce the risk of heart disease. 

Benefits of the Mediterranean diet 

The Mediterranean diet also has a lot of health benefits:

  • Reduces risk of chronic diseases (like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers)
  • Supports brain health
  • Promotes longevity
  • Easier to follow (if you’re not in a food desert)
  • Helps with weight loss/management

Similarities and Differences between the DASH and Mediterranean Diet

These diets look pretty similar. And they are in a lot of ways because both eating patterns focus on whole foods instead of processed foods. 

Both the DASH and Med diet:

  • Emphasize a high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats (like nuts and seeds) and lean proteins. You’ll get 3-5 servings of vegetables easy with either diet. 
  • Limit fatty and processed meats
  • Restrict saturated fats, trans fats and sodium. 
  • Promote better heart health
  • Lower risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers
  • Support weight management
  • Work better when you have an active lifestyle, good stress management, and good sleep

But there are some key differences between these two diets. 

DASH vs Mediterranean diet: The Key Differences

  • There is more total fat in the Mediterranean diet (all of the olive oil)
  • Alcohol and sweets in moderation are ok in the Mediterranean diet. The DASH diet recommends limiting these. So the Med diet feels more flexible. 
  • The DASH diet promotes food with potassium, magnesium and calcium because they’re linked to lower blood pressure. The Med diet focuses on whole foods and fiber. 
  • The U.S government created the DASH diet as a dietary intervention. The Med diet is tied to Mediterranean culture and happens to be good for overall health. 

Takeaway

Both the DASH and Mediterranean diets have several health benefits. Both promote whole foods and a balanced diet.  

The DASH diet specific helps with lowering blood pressure while the Med diet focuses on overall health. But, both dietary approaches reduce risk for a heart attack (and other heart diseases) stroke, type 2 diabetes. 

Also, both diets work better when you have a healthy lifestyle. If you’ve ever been to the Mediterranean region, those hills will keep you active. I’m convinced they’re keeping people healthy (whether they like it or not). 

​You can’t go wrong with either diet, so if you’re looking to adopt one of these styles…it’s going to come down to the most important question:

Which one fits your lifestyle better?

You don’t need to completely adopt one diet either. You can take parts from each diet and fit them into your current diet.