Benefits of a healthy diet — with or without weight loss

With the obesity epidemic at an all-time high in the US — close to 70% of Americans are overweight or obese — many people could benefit from losing weight. However, for numerous reasons, weight loss is challenging. In addition, some people are tempted to choose the “diet of the month” or a plan that they have read about online or heard about from friends and family. Unfortunately, these diets are oftentimes not the most nutritious, and even with some weight loss, may not ultimately improve health.

So, is there any benefit from improving the quality of one’s diet without weight loss? The answer is YES. Three randomized clinical trials (the gold standard in nutrition research) have shown that by improving what you eat, you can improve cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides, and improve your health.

Examining the evidence

One study examined the effect of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet on blood pressure. The researchers recruited 460 overweight and obese adults with borderline high blood pressure. They provided the participants with food according to DASH diet guidelines. The DASH diet is defined as: low in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol; rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, and fiber; emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products; including fish, poultry, nuts, and seeds; and limiting red meat, sweets, and sugary beverages. To prevent any effect from weight changes on the results, researchers regulated calories to prevent weight gain or weight loss. At the end of the 11-week study, the participants’ blood pressure was significantly reduced compared to their baseline blood pressure.

The second study looked at the already very healthy DASH diet and then added sodium limits. Study participants on the DASH diet who were assigned to the lowest sodium limit (1,500 milligrams per day) experienced drops in blood pressure similar to what a blood pressure medication would achieve.

The third trial examined whether changing a few components of the original DASH diet could result in even greater improvement in risk factors. This study, called OMNI Heart (Optimal Macronutrient Intake to Prevent Heart Disease) examined 164 overweight and obese adults with prehypertension or Stage 1 hypertension, and replaced some of the carbohydrates in the DASH diet with either healthy protein (from fish, nuts, beans, and legumes) or unsaturated fats (from olive oil, nuts, avocado, and nut butters). Again calories were kept neutral to avoid weight gain or loss. Results showed that substituting healthy protein or healthy fats for some of the carbohydrate lowered LDL (bad) cholesterol, blood pressure, and triglycerides even further than the DASH diet alone.

Putting it into practice

In summary, for overweight or obese people with borderline high blood pressure, following a DASH diet with a focus on daily consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, nuts, and lean sources of protein could result in a reduction in blood pressure. Limiting high sources of sodium, including any canned, convenience, and processed foods, and high-sodium condiments such as salad dressing, pickles, and soy sauce, can produce even greater reductions in blood pressure. Substituting some healthy fat or healthy protein for some of the carbohydrates in your diet may improve your cardiac risk factors even more by lowering triglycerides and LDL cholesterol.

The bottom line is that for those who are overweight or obese, losing weight is not the only way to improve your health. Choosing healthy foods every day can make a positive difference.

The DASH Eating Plan
Food group Goal servings Example of one serving
Vegetables 4–5/day 1 cup raw, leafy veggies or 1/2 cup cooked
Fruit 3–4/day 1 cup berries, 1 medium apple
Whole grains* 4–6/day 1 slice whole-grain bread, 1/2 cup cooked
Low-fat or fat-free dairy 2/day 1 cup yogurt or milk
Nuts, legumes, seeds 4–5/week 1/4 cup nuts, 2 tbsp. nut butter, 1/2 cup legumes
Oils and fats* 3/day 1 tsp oil, 2 tbsp. salad dressing
Fish, poultry, or lean meats 6 or less/day 1 ounce fish, poultry, or lean meat, 1 egg
Sweets 5 or less/week 1 tbsp. sugar, 1/2 cup sorbet
For an OMNI Heart eating plan: Limit fruit to 3 servings per day and whole grains to 4 servings per day, and increase healthy protein (fish, legumes, beans, nuts, nut butters) OR increase healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nut butters, nuts).


  1. samantha denton

    While women have Curves, Weight Watchers, etc. to try to “hold hands” and show moral support, men have a different approach entirely. Weight loss becomes a sport to them, they want to show each other up, forget holding hands. Read more about common differences between men and women dieting here

  2. Joyce

    I have chosen Dr. Esselstyn’s whole-food/plant-based diet. My diet has been terrible for many years, and I am facing some real health risks. I’m not yet fully transitioned, but I have already experienced positive results. A shocker was when my vision improved. I no longer have any discomfort in my chest. I have high hopes that when I have bloodwork done, results will have improved.

  3. Ivanna

    Proper eating is probably the key. But sometimes, I think it’s ok to submit to our cravings AS LONG as we eat in moderation… To those who are practicing proper eating or wanna lose weight, I suggest you try drinking red tea. It’s good in helping shed off unwanted pounds naturally…

  4. videoseer

    I recently read an article by fitness expert Kara K. were she talked about cellular inflammation and research that Harvard Medical School. According to the article which appeared on her health blog, researchers showed that you are able to reverse cellular inflammation that rapid weight loss can be achieved. What is your opinion on cellular inflammation?

  5. azure

    More expensive & time-consuming to do the DASH plan. Means doing alot of your own food prep/cooking because so many chain restaurants or prepared foods have a relatively high Na level & sugar seems to be added to just about everything, organic bread, there’s relatively high levels of saturated fats, including palm oils, etc.

    How many people have a bakery nearby that bakes affordable breads w/out added sugar?

    I cook most of my own food (bake my own bread), my mother has arthritic hands and is old enough that she doesn’t want to cook more then a soft-boiled egg. Finding canned soups (or soups in aseptic packaging) that she likes that don’t have added sugar or alot of sodium has been difficult. I’ve cooked and frozen some food for her but I do not live close to her. She also has some difficulties w/her digestive system.

    Too bad the US gov’t refuses to regulate the food “industry” so that more prepared foods were healthier.

    • Greg Houck

      Agreed Azure, the FDA works to propagate disease and product, the result: Corporate Toxicity Syndrome (CTS), is a syndrome created by chronic exposure or ingestion of corporate products, including pharmaceuticals, foods with low or no nutritional value (soda, ice cream, pizza and burgers for example), fluoridated water, street drugs and alcoholic beverages, combined with the absence of nutrition via nutritional foods, vitamins, minerals and other essentials; Presents as one who is obese, has high blood pressure, trouble sleeping, musculoskeletal disorders, trouble thinking & various other health issues such as diabetes and cancer. Chronic foodstuff toxin exposure combined with malnutrition. Any other label is a misnomer.

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