The DASH Diet is mainly touted for its positive effects on blood pressure levels, but the science-backed plan may also lead to weight loss for some individuals due to its focus on eating whole, fresh foods.Thinkstock
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, diet has been consistently ranked by US News & World Report as a top diet for heart health and weight loss, and it’s no surprise why. Unlike fad diets that call for extreme calorie or food-group restrictions without scientific evidence that supports their efficacy, the DASH diet involves making manageable dietary changes that are flexible and rooted in proven nutritional advice.
This has made the eating plan popular among doctors, dietitians, and other health professionals in the United States, where heart disease remains the No. 1 killer among men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). High blood pressure (hypertension) is a big contributing factor to heart disease and affects 1 in 3 American adults, per the CDC. It’s not just an American problem, though: Heart disease is also the leading cause of death around the world, according to the American Heart Association.
Whom Is the DASH Diet Good for Exactly, and What Types Are Available?
The DASH diet was developed specifically to help people lower high blood pressure and is promoted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health.According to the American Heart Association, blood pressure readings higher than 130 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) for systolic blood pressure and higher than 80 mm Hg for diastolic are considered high.
The food options available on the DASH diet closely mirror the eating plan recommended in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate, with a focus on whole foods, such as fruit and veggies; fat-free or low-fat dairy; whole grains; and lean meats, fish, and poultry. Meanwhile, the plan requires cutting back on, or preferably eliminating, processed foods, like sugary drinks and packaged snacks, and limiting red meat, which in excess has been linked to poorer heart health and heart failure, according to a past study.
The DASH diet specifically meets the low-sodium (salt) requirements that can give people an edge over hypertension. This means it’s a great diet for people who have high blood pressure or have a personal or family history of heart disease, as well as those individuals who may be at risk for type 2 diabetes or are currently managing the condition.
DASH Diet Types
Depending on your health needs, you can choose from two forms of the DASH diet:
The Standard DASH Diet This plan limits sodium consumption to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day.
The Lower-Sodium DASH Diet This version calls for limiting sodium consumption to 1,500 mg per day.
According to the NHLBI, the daily Dash Eating Plan also involves, on average:
- 6 to 8 servings of grains, preferably whole grains
- 6 or fewer servings of meat, poultry, and fish
- 4 to 5 servings of veggies
- 4 to 5 servings of fruit
- 2 to 3 servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy products (fat-free if watching weight, like with diabetes)
- 2 to 3 servings of fat or oils (preferably healthy fats)
Here are some of the other daily nutritional goals of the DASH diet plan: (9)
- Total fat is 27 percent of calories
- Saturated fat is 6 percent of calories or less
- Protein is 18 percent of calories
- Carbohydrates are 55 percent of calories
- Cholesterol is limited to 150 mg
- Fiber is 30 grams (g) or more
Depending on weight loss or weight maintenance needs, you can choose a DASH diet plan that provides 1,200, 1,400, 1,600, 1,800, 2,000, 2,600, or 3,100 calories per day.
You can track your nutrient and calorie intake for free with Everyday Health’s Calorie Counter.
How Does the DASH Diet Work to Help Lower Blood Pressure?
The DASH diet works by limiting not only salt but also saturated fat — both of which can be detrimental to heart health, says Kimberley Rose-Francis,RDN, CDE, a nutritionist based in Sebring, Florida. Sodium-rich salt can drive up blood pressure, which puts unnecessary strain on the heart muscle, Rose-Francis says. Saturated fat, on the other hand, can increase cholesterol levels. “Cholesterol has the potential of blocking or decreasing the flow of blood to the heart,” Rose-Francis says, adding that restricted blood flow could lead to a heart attack.
The DASH diet also works by increasing foods that provide fiber, lean protein, and other nutrients thought to help lower blood pressure.
Also important to note is people who want to lower their blood pressure should combine the diet with other healthy lifestyle approaches to managing hypertension, such as getting more exercise, losing weight, and cutting back on alcohol consumption. Quitting smoking is also crucial for lowering blood pressure and maintaining good heart health.
A 7-Day Sample DASH Diet Menu That You Can Follow
According to the Mayo Clinic, the DASH diet calls for eating lots of fresh veggies and fruits, but it requires consuming only a moderate amount of whole grains, as well as lean sources of protein and healthy fats, such as fish and nuts, respectively. This distinguishes the DASH Diet from other popular plans, such as the Atkins diet and the ketogenic diet, or the high-fat, low-carb diet.
Here’s a typical week of meals on the DASH diet:
- 3 ounces (oz) of turkey meatloaf
- 1 small baked potato topped with 1 tablespoon (tbsp) each of fat-free sour cream and low-fat cheese, and a chopped scallion
- 1 small whole-wheat roll
- Cooked spinach
- 1 peach
- Egg white omelet with bell pepper and onion
- 1 slice of whole-grain toast
- Tuna salad lettuce wrap
- ½ banana
- 4 oz halibut with ½ cup brown rice and 1 cup asparagus
- An apple
- 1 cup slow-cooked oatmeal with 1 tbsp raisins and 1 teaspoon (tsp) honey
- ½ cup blueberries
- ½ cup strawberries
- Whole-wheat pita bread stuffed with lettuce, fresh peppers, shredded carrots, hummus, and low-sodium black beans
- 4 oz grilled chicken with ½ cup zucchini
- 1 peach
- 1 slice of whole-grain bread with 1 tsp jam
- 1 plum
- ½ banana
- Bow tie pasta salad with ¼ cup peppers, ¾ cup whole-wheat pasta, 1 tbsp onion, ¼ cup chopped cucumber, and 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup honeydew melon
- 4 oz tilapia with 1 cup cauliflower and 1 cup green beans
- 1 apple
- 1 cup fruit salad (melon, banana, apple, or berries) with 1 cup fat-free yogurt and 1/3 cup walnuts
- 1 bran muffin
- Curried chicken wrap with 3 oz chicken breast, ½ cup chopped apple, 1 ½ tbsp light mayonnaise, and ½ tsp curry powder in a whole-wheat tortilla
- ½ cup baby carrots
- 1 cup fat-free milk
- 1 cup whole-wheat spaghetti with 1 cup no-salt-added marinara sauce
- 2 cups green salad with 1 tbsp low-fat Caesar dressing
- 1 small whole-wheat roll and 1 tsp olive oil
- 1 nectarine
- Trail mix made of ¼ cup raisins, 22 unsalted mini pretzels, and 2 tbsp sunflower seeds
- 1 whole-wheat bagel with 2 tbsp peanut butter (no salt added)
- 1 orange
- 2 cups fat-free milk
- Spinach salad with 4 cups of spinach, 1 pear (sliced), ½ cup mandarin oranges, 1/3 cup slivered almonds, and 2 tbsp red wine vinaigrette
- 12 reduced-sodium wheat crackers
- 3 oz baked cod with ½ cup brown rice pilaf and ½ cup steamed green beans
- 1 small sourdough roll and 2 tsp olive oil
- 1 cup of berries with mint garnish
- 1 cup fat-free yogurt
- 4 vanilla wafers
- 1 cup oatmeal with 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 slice whole-wheat toast and 1 tsp trans-free margarine
- 1 banana
- 2 cups fat-free milk
- Tuna salad with ½ cup tuna, 2 tsp light mayonnaise, 15 grapes, and ¼ cup diced celery served on 2.5 cups romaine lettuce with 8 Melba toast crackers
- Kebab with 3 oz beef and 1 cup peppers, onions, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes
- 1 cup wild rice
- 1/3 cup pecans
- 1 cup pineapple
- Spritzer with 4 oz cran-raspberry juice and 4–8 oz sparkling water
- 1 cup light yogurt
- 1 peach
Possible Pros of Following the DASH Diet: What the Research Says
The DASH diet is recommended for people who want to lower blood pressure, but it’s also a great option for anyone who wants to adopt a healthy diet. Because it emphasizes eating whole foods that are naturally low in unhealthy fats and added sugars, as well as moderate portions, it may also lead to weight loss.
There are several benefits to following the DASH diet:
Long-Term Potential The diet offers variety and is easy to follow as a lifelong dietary choice.
Lower Blood Pressure and Improve Healthy Cholesterol Levels Studies have shown that people who stick to this diet can lower their blood pressure and — when eating low-fat rather than high-fat dairy — also lower their LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, according to a study published in February 2016 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. A study published in December 2017 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found the blood-pressure-lowering effects to be most pronounced among people with systolic blood pressure above 150 mm Hg.
A Reduced Risk of Certain Diseases A stronger heart can result in improvements of other aspects of your health, such as kidney function, blood sugar management, and eye health. One study published in October 2019 in Clinical Nutrition found the DASH diet lowers the risk of developing chronic kidney disease. Following the DASH diet may also reduce your risk for stroke, the NHLBI notes.
Boosted Heart Health A study published in September 2019 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found women with type 2 diabetes who followed the DASH diet had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared with women who did not prioritize fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
Improved Management of Type 2 Diabetes According to an article published in the journal Current Hypertension Reports, when paired with a weight loss plan and exercise regimen, the DASH diet may result in reduced insulin resistance, which is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes.
Better Nutrition The DASH diet emphasizes eating whole and fresh foods because processed and prepackaged foods often have the most added salt, not to mention added sugar.
The Possible Cons of Following the DASH Diet: What Experts Caution
There are few drawbacks to the DASH diet. Some people may be troubled by the fact that it does not outline a specific way to lose weight.
“It is not designed for weight loss, per se, but it offers different numbers of servings for the food groups for different calorie levels, so you could follow a [more targeted] weight loss diet with this plan,” says Nancy L. Cohen, PhD, RD, professor and head of the department of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Other people may find it hard to adjust to eating as much fiber as the DASH diet recommends. It’s a good idea to gradually add high-fiber foods, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, to your diet and drink plenty of water while doing so to help avoid bloating and physical discomfort.
The Potential Short- and Long-Term Effects of the DASH Diet
Research shows the DASH diet can help lower blood pressure at least in the short term, but longer studies will be needed to determine whether the DASH diet will translate to lower rates of heart disease for those who stick with it over the long term.
That said, for many, the DASH diet is the perfect one-two punch: a sensible diet for keeping blood pressure levels in check and for losing pounds or maintaining a healthy weight.