Food: Why the DASH Diet Is One of the Only Eating Plans Doctors Actually Recommend

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a wooden table topped with plates of food on a plate: The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) has been proven to help lower blood pressure. Learn which foods you’ll eat and how to get started. © IGphotography - Getty Images The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) has been proven to help lower blood pressure. Learn which foods you’ll eat and how to get started.

From the keto to paleo, we’re constantly bombarded with diets that focus on what we shouldn’t eat. But if you’re looking to follow a doctor-recommended eating plan that not only creates healthy, sustainable habits, but also gives your heart health a boost, look no further than the DASH diet.

Experts have recommended the DASH diet for years, as it focuses on the foods you should be eating, without cutting out any major nutrient groups. It’s all about making delicious meals that nourish your body and developing healthy habits you can keep up with for the long haul.

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Ready to learn more? Here’s everything you should know about the DASH diet, including its benefits and how to get started.

What is the DASH diet, exactly?

The DASH diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and it was developed to help lower blood pressure without medication. The DASH Diet Mediterranean Solution was written by Marla Heller, M.S., R.D., and features a guide to the latest science and research, meal plans, recipes, and expert-backed strategies to help you succeed on the plan.

Much like the equally science-backed Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet emphasizes fish, poultry, whole grains, fiber-rich veggies and fruits, low-fat or nonfat dairy, legumes, nuts, vegetable oils, and seeds. The diet suggests limiting sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets, and saturated fats, like fatty meats, full-fat dairy, and tropical oils.

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What makes the DASH diet specifically great for people with hypertension is that it caps sodium at 2,300 milligrams a day and encourages sticking to 1,500 milligrams per day—which is in line with the American Heart Association’s recommendations.

The full-body benefits of the DASH diet

The success of the DASH diet took off when the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute funded research on the benefits of the eating plan and found that it significantly lowered blood pressure and reduced the risk of heart disease in study participants. Because of this, U.S. News & World Report has consistently ranked the DASH diet as one of the top diets to follow for overall well-being.

Time and time again, research backs the DASH diet. In one 2020 meta-analysis published in the journal Advances in Nutrition that included 30 randomized controlled trials, researchers found the plan significantly improved blood pressure numbers in adults with and without hypertension.

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The DASH diet can also aid in overall heart health. In a 2019 study from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers followed over 4,000 participants for 13 years to compare their diet (from self-reported food-frequency questionnaires) and their incidents of heart failure. They found the DASH diet was beneficial in preventing heart failure in participants younger than 75 years old.

Moreover, the DASH diet can help a person maintain a healthy weight. In a 2018 study from the American Heart Association, 129 overweight or obese women and men who had high blood pressure were divided into three groups. The first group was randomly assigned the DASH diet with a weight management program and exercise plan; the second group followed the DASH diet with the guidance of a nutritionist; and the third group didn’t change their eating or exercise habits.

By the end of the 16 weeks, researchers found that those following the DASH diet and the weight management exercise plan lost an average of 19 pounds and significantly reduced their blood pressure. Those who followed the DASH eating plan alone decreased their blood pressure levels, and the participants who didn’t change their diet or exercise habits at all found minimal blood pressure decline.

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There’s even some research that points to the DASH diet as a veggie-forward option to protect against cancer risk. A 2019 study published in the journal Annals of Epidemiology suggests a higher diet quality, like that of the DASH diet, could lower risk for high aggressive prostate cancer.

Are there any cons of the DASH diet?

The DASH diet focuses on foods you’re already incorporating in your diet and teaches life-long habits to make heart-healthy decisions. Because of this, there aren’t many cons to giving it a try. The one downside is, unlike diets that come with pre-packaged snacks and meals, the DASH diet does require some heavy lifting on the follower’s part. Creating a meal plan that follows the daily serving goals, meal prepping, cooking, and shopping for ingredients can be very time consuming and somewhat pricey for the average person. It’s important to have a plan in place to make the DASH diet a sustainable option for your time and budget.

Unless you’re a competitive athlete who loses a lot of sweat, a worker who is exposed to major heat, or have been advised by your doctor to not drop your sodium intake, there shouldn’t be a concern about too little salt in your diet. According to the American Heart Association, the body needs only a small amount of sodium a day to function (about 500 milligrams), and very few people come close to that when planning meals.

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What foods do you eat on the DASH diet?

There’s a variety of delicious foods you’ll eat on the DASH diet to not only lower your blood pressure but also improve insulin sensitivity and reduce triglyceride levels (a type of fat in the blood). Here’s a list of foods encouraged on the plan:

  • Whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, farro, and freekeh
  • Fruits, including berries, apples, oranges, and pears
  • Vegetables
  • Low-fat or non-fat dairy
  • Lean meats, fish, and poultry
  • Nuts, seeds, legumes
  • Healthy fats, like extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, and nuts and seeds

What foods should you limit on the DASH diet?


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The DASH diet doesn’t cut out any food groups or types of food. Certain foods should be enjoyed in moderation, and the DASH diet meal plan breaks down the maximum allowance for these foods. Here’s a list of foods to limit:

  • Foods high in salt, like processed foods or restaurant meals
  • Foods high in saturated fats such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy, and tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils
  • Sweets (These include artificial sweeteners, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sugar-free candies)
  • Excessive alcohol (no more than one drink a day for women and two a day for men)

Your sample DASH diet menu

Wondering what an ideal day of eating looks like? Check out a sample of the 1,600-calorie and 2,000-calorie meal plans below.

Grains and grain products

  • 2,000-calorie diet: 6 to 8 servings per day
  • 1,600-calorie diet: 5 to 6 servings per day
  • Serving size: 1 slice of bread, 1 ounce of whole grain cereal (serving sizes may vary), 1/2 cup cooked brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, or another whole grain
  • Good food examples: whole-wheat bread, whole grain cereal, popcorn, steel-cut oatmeal

Vegetables

  • 2,000-calorie diet: 4 to 5 servings per day
  • 1,600-calorie diet: 3 to 4 servings per day
  • Serving size: 4-ounce veggie juice, 1 cup raw leafy vegetables, 1/2 cup cut-up raw or cooked veggies
  • Good food examples: tomatoes, squash, broccoli, spinach, sweet potatoes, green beans, carrots, collards, kale, lima beans, potatoes

Lean meats, poultry, eggs, and fish

  • 2,000-calorie diet: 6 or fewer servings per day
  • 1,600-calorie diet: 3 to 4 servings or less per day
  • Serving size: 1-ounce cooked meats, poultry, or fish, or 1 egg (limit egg yolks to no more than 4 per week; 2 egg whites are equivalent to 1 ounce of meat in protein). Be sure to trim away skin and fat from poultry and meat. Opt to bake, broil, grill, or roast meat instead of frying.
  • Good food examples: skinless chicken or turkey, salmon, tuna, trout, lean cuts of beef, pork, and lamb

Fruits

  • 2,000-calorie diet: 4 to 5 servings per day
  • 1,600-calorie diet: 4 servings per day
  • Serving size: 1 medium fruit, ¼ cup unsweetened dried fruit, 1/2 cup fresh, frozen, or canned fruit
  • Good food examples: apricots, bananas, grapes, oranges, grapefruit juice, raisins, strawberries

Low-fat or fat-free dairy

  • 2,000-calorie diet: 2 to 3 servings per day
  • 1,600-calorie diet: 2 to 3 servings per day
  • Serving size: 8 oz (1 cup) skim or 1 percent milk or low-fat yogurt, 1 1/2 ounces part-skim cheese
  • Good food examples: fat-free or low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, fortified soy beverage, lactose-free product

Nuts, seeds, and legumes

  • 2,000-calorie diet: 4 to 5 servings per week
  • 1,600-calorie diet: 3 to 4 servings per week
  • Serving size: 1/3 cup unsalted nuts, 2 tablespoons nut butter, 2 tablespoons seeds, 1/2 cup cooked legumes
  • Good food examples: almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, kidney beans, lentils

Fats

  • 2,000-calorie diet: 2 to 3 servings per day
  • 1,600-calorie diet: 1 to 2 servings per day
  • Serving size: 1 teaspoon soft margarine or oil, 1 tablespoon mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons salad dressing
  • Good food examples: soft margarine, vegetable oil (such as canola, olive, or safflower oil), low-fat mayonnaise, light salad dressing. Be sure to read salad dressing labels because some fat-free and low-fat dressings load up on sugar to make up for the missing fat.

Sweets and added sugars

  • 2,000-calorie diet: 5 or fewer servings per week
  • 1,600-calorie diet: 3 or fewer servings per week
  • Serving size: 1 tablespoon sugar, jelly or jam, 1/2 cup sorbet or gelatin, 8 ounces (1 cup) lemonade
  • Good food examples: fruit-flavored gelatin, fruit punch, hard candy, jelly, maple syrup, sorbet and ices, sugar

How to get started on the DASH Diet

Before you start a new eating plan, talk to your doctor to make the best choices for your body. They can assess your blood pressure, weight, and heart disease risk factors to determine the right plan for you. Be sure to also discuss any medications you may be taking with your doctor and how the plan may affect them. Do not stop taking any medications that control high blood pressure or cholesterol without supervision.

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To get started, assess where you are now in your health journey. Consider talking with your doctor, dietitian, or using an online body weight planner to plan your calorie goals to maintain or lose weight. Consider filling out the What’s On Your Plate worksheet, which helps you determine where you’re at and work toward hitting your daily goals.

Then, begin to plan your meals for your first week. You’ll want to do some research for DASH-approved recipes, and you may want to start with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institutes’ first week meal plan or shop for a DASH diet cookbook. Make a grocery list based on the above list and your weekly meal plan and aim to hit your target each day. Of course, don’t worry if some days are off. Do your best to keep the average day close to your goals.

Lastly, be sure to assess other lifestyle factors: Do your best to manage stress, limit alcohol intake, get plenty of sleep, quit smoking, and be physically active. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two days a week of muscle-strengthening activities.

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