The DASH diet: How does it work?
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The main aim and benefit of the DASH diet is to reduce high blood pressure. It involves eating fruits, vegetables, whole grain, low-fat dairy, poultry, fish, and nuts, while limiting red meat, fat, sugar, and salt.
The full name of the DASH diet is Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Experts from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) created the diet to help people manage their blood pressure.
However, it is an overall healthful eating plan, and it can help people lose weight.
In this article, find out what the DASH diet is, what it involves, and how it can benefit a person’s health.
High blood pressure is a major health concern in the United States. Learn about it here.
What is the DASH diet?
The main aim of the DASH diet is not to lose weight but to reduce blood pressure. However, it can also help those who want to lose weight, lower cholesterol, and manage or prevent diabetes.
Important aspects include:
- portion size
- consuming a wide variety of healthful foods
- obtaining the proper balance of nutrients
DASH encourages a person to:
- eat less sodium (the key ingredient in salt)
- increase their intake of magnesium, calcium, and potassium
These strategies help lower blood pressure.
DASH is not a vegetarian diet, but it adds more fruits and vegetables, low or nonfat dairy foods, beans, nuts, and other nutritious items.
It provides suggestions about healthful alternatives to “junk food” and encourages people to avoid processed foods.
Your guide to lowering your blood pressure with DASH, published by the NIH, provides useful information on how to switch to the DASH diet. It also gives samples of meal plans and their nutritional values.
Which foods can help lower blood pressure? Find out here.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, can increase the risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and kidney disease.
Experts who reviewed the DASH diet in 2017, 20 years after its launch, described it as an intervention that could considerably boost the health of the population.
According to the review, if people with high blood pressure followed the DASH diet precisely, this could prevent around 400,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease over 10 years.
Who can benefit?
According to an article from 2019, people who follow the DASH diet can reduce levels of:
- blood pressure
- blood sugar
- triglycerides, or fat, in the blood
- low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol
- insulin resistance
These are all features of metabolic syndrome, a condition that also involves obesity, type 2 diabetes, and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
A 2013 study looked at the impact of DASH on people with and without metabolic syndrome who followed the diet for 8 weeks.
Results showed that on average:
In people with metabolic syndrome, the systolic pressure fell by 4.9 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), and the diastolic fell by 1.9 mm HG.
In people without metabolic syndrome, the systolic pressure fell by 5.2 mm Hg, and the diastolic fell by 2.9 mm Hg.
In other words, DASH can be effective at lowering blood pressure in people with or without metabolic syndrome. There is also evidence that it may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer and improve overall life expectancy.
The National Kidney Foundation recommend DASH for people with kidney disease.
Which foods can help lower blood sugar? Find out here.
Understanding blood pressure
Systolic pressure is the blood pressure while the heart is pumping blood, while diastolic is the pressure when the heart is resting between beats. A person with a systolic pressure of 120 mm Hg and a diastolic pressure of 80 mm Hg will have a reading of 120/80 mm Hg.
Current guidelines from the American College of Cardiology describe blood pressure as follows:
Normal: Below 120/80 mm Hg.
Elevated: Systolic is 120–129, and diastolic is below 80.
Stage 1 hypertension: Systolic is 130–139, and diastolic is 80–89.
Stage 2 hypertension: Systolic is 140 or above; diastolic is 90 or above.
Hypertensive crisis: Systolic is over 180; diastolic is over 120.
Will I lose weight?
People can lose weight on the DASH diet, but they do not have to. If a person does wish to lose weight, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommend reducing calories gradually.
Other tips for losing weight on DASH include:
- having small portions often during the day
- eating less meat and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- choosing fruits or vegetables as a snack instead of candies or chips
- using the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)’s body weight planner
- using the calorie chart in the NHLBI’s DASH eating plan
Which breakfast foods can help a person lose weight?
The DASH diet aims to provide nutrients that can help reduce blood pressure.
Here are some of the features:
- It focuses on dietary patterns, rather than single nutrients.
- It emphasizes foods that are rich in antioxidants.
A person should aim to balance their nutrient intake as follows:
|Total fat||27% of calories|
|Saturated fat||6% of calories|
|Protein||18% of calories|
|Carbohydrate||55% of calories|
|Cholesterol||150 mg per day|
|Sodium||1,500 mg or 2,300 mg, depending on the diet|
Foods should be:
- low in saturated and trans fats
- rich in fiber, protein, magnesium, calcium, and potassium
- low in sodium
Saturated fats mostly occur in fatty meat, full-fat dairy products, coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil.
The DASH diet focuses largely on plant-based foods, many of which are rich in antioxidants. Experts believe that antioxidants play a role in preventing various health issues, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
The DASH diet encourages people to eat less sodium. Sodium is the main ingredient in table salt, and it occurs naturally in a number of foods. The human body needs salt, but adding salt to the diet can make sodium levels too high. This can raise blood pressure in some people.
Two types of DASH diet
There are two versions of the DASH diet:
The Standard DASH diet: People consume up to 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium each day.
The Low Sodium DASH diet: The maximum sodium intake is 1,500 mg each day.
Many people in the U.S. consume 3,600 mg of sodium or more each day, so both versions of the DASH diet aim to reduce sodium consumption.
In a clinical trial to assess the diet’s impact, experts found that combining the DASH diet with a low sodium intake has more impact on blood pressure than taking just one of these actions.
As people reduce their salt intake, they should also eat more foods that contain potassium. Potassium helps the blood vessels relax, and this can lower blood pressure. People should aim to consume 4,700 mg of potassium each day.
Foods that contain potassium include:
- dried fruit, such as apricots, prunes, and raisins
- lentils and kidney beans
- orange juice
A half-cup of dried apricots will provide around 30% of a person’s daily need for potassium. A cup of cooked lentils provides 21%.
The Mediterranean diet may also benefit the heart and overall health. Find out more.
What you can eat
The DASH diet emphasizes:
- fresh fruits and vegetables
- low-fat dairy products
- whole grains
- some legumes, poultry, and fish
- small amounts of red meat, fats, and sweets
It is low in saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol.
On a typical day on a 2,000 calorie-per-day DASH diet, a person might eat:
Grains: 6–8 servings. Examples include pasta, rice, cereal, and bread. One serving could be a slice of whole wheat bread, a half-cup of cooked pasta, rice or cereal, or 1 ounce (oz) of dry cereal.
Vegetables, including fiber- and vitamin-rich vegetables: 4–5 servings. Examples include broccoli, sweet potatoes, greens, carrots, or tomatoes. One serving could be a half-cup of raw or cooked vegetables, or a cup of raw, green, leafy vegetables.
Fruit: 4–5 servings. These are rich in fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamins, and other minerals. One serving may include a half-cup of fresh, canned, or frozen fruit, or one medium fresh fruit.
Low-fat or fat-free dairy food: 2–3 servings: These provide calcium, protein, and vitamin D. One serving could include 1 cup of skim milk or milk that is 1% fat, 1.5 oz of cheese, or 1 cup of yogurt.
Fish, poultry, or lean meat: Up to six 1-oz servings. Meats are rich in proteins, B vitamins, zinc, and other nutrients, but people following the DASH diet should limit their meat consumption and eat mostly fruits and vegetables. One serving may include 1 oz of cooked, skinless poultry, lean meat or seafood, 1 egg, 1 oz of tuna, packed in water, with no salt added.
Nuts, seeds, and legumes: 4–5 servings. These provide protein, potassium, magnesium, fiber, phytochemicals, and other essential nutrients. Examples include sunflower seeds, beans, peas, lentils, almonds, peanuts, and pistachios.
Healthful fats and oils: 2–3 servings. Fat helps the body absorb essential vitamins and other nutrients and maintain the immune system, among other roles. One serving may include 1 teaspoon (tsp) of margarine, 1 tablespoon (tbsp) of low-fat mayonnaise, or 2 tbsp of light salad dressing.
Sweets: Up to 5 servings a week. The DASH diet does not eliminate sweets but recommends limiting their intake. One serving could include 1 cup of lemonade, a half-cup of sorbet, 1 tbs of sugar, jam, or jelly.
The DASH diet recommends no more than two alcoholic drinks for men and one for women each day.
The amount of food will also depend on the individual’s needs for energy, and this will depend on their age, sex, and activity levels.
- A 51-year-old female who is not very active will need only 1,600 calories a day.
- A highly active 25-year-old male will need 3,000 calories.
One attraction of the DASH diet is that it allows for variety.
Dietitians have prepared special recipes to suit the diet, such as garden splendor chicken, fabulous frittata, and meaty sauce over spaghetti.
A variety of DASH diet cookbooks are available for purchase online.
Here are some general tips:
- Make sure there is plenty of color on the plate.
- Include fruits, vegetables, and nonfat or low-fat dairy foods.
- Have at least two side dishes of vegetables.
- Prepare fruit-based desserts, rather than pastries.
- Focus on an overall eating plan, rather than specific dishes, to get a variety of nutrients.
The NHLBI recommend switching to the DASH diet over a couple of days or weeks, gradually adding more vegetables and cutting down on fatty products so that it becomes part of the daily routine.