The DASH Diet, a Healthy Eating Plan to Reduce Blood Pressure

Hypertension or high blood pressure affects more than a billion people worldwide. High blood pressure is a serious health issue that puts you at risk of cardiovascular disease, kidney failure and even stroke. The best way to manage blood pressure is through healthy lifestyle choices like diet, stress control and exercise. With that in mind, scientists and doctors created the DASH diet as a dietary approach to combat high blood pressure. The diet was created after researchers observed how hypertension was less common in vegans and vegetarians.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is often suggested by dieticians and doctors to reduce blood pressure naturally. It is an evidence-based eating plan that focuses on consuming nutrient-rich foods that are low in sodium and high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, and fiber. The diet was first created to reduce lower high blood pressure, but it is also a healthy way to lose weight.

About DASH diet

DASH was first introduced at a meeting of the American Heart Association in 1996 and later published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997. The study concluded how a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods and with reduced saturated and total fat can substantially lower blood pressure. It offered an additional nutritional approach to preventing and treating hypertension and in some cases was comparable to that of people on medication for stage 1 hypertension. Thereafter, there have been various research and studies on the DASH eating plan with most found to have considerable benefits in reducing blood pressure.

How DASH Works

The DASH diet also includes a variety of foods rich in nutrients, such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium, that may help some individuals reduce blood pressure.

Main Elements of The DASH Diet

  • Get plenty of vegetables, fruits, and fat-free or low-fat dairy
  • Include whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils
  • Eat lean meats, poultry, and fish
  • Cut back on salt, red meat, sweets, and sugary drinks
  • Limit alcoholic beverages

During any healthy diet, you need to get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most days of the week. Examples include brisk walking or riding a bike. Aim to get at least 150 minutes or 2 hours and 30 minutes of exercise per week.

Dash Diet and Sodium

The standard DASH diet limits sodium to 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day which is in line with most dietary guidelines across the world. That’s about the amount of sodium in 1 teaspoon of table salt. The WHO (World Health Organization ) recommends less than 2000 mg per day. A lower sodium version of DASH restricts sodium to 1,500 mg a day. However, consuming too less sodium will also bring with it health issues such as Hyponatremia, and an increased risk of heart disease, insulin resistance and fluid retention.

Researchers have not really found any benefits of drastically reducing sodium even in those with high blood pressure.  How much salt you need is best understood by your serum levels of sodium, and what works for you. If you aren’t sure what sodium level is right for you, talk to your doctor.

Key Principles and Food Recommendations of the DASH 

The DASH diet does not recommend any specific food as such, but mentions the number of servings of each food group based on a 2000 calorie diet.

  • Increase fruits and vegetables *4/5 servings per day (Approx 30 gms or 1 cup): Aim to include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your daily meals. They are rich in potassium, magnesium, and fiber, which help lower blood pressure. Berries, leafy greens, citrus fruits, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes are particularly beneficial.
  • Emphasize whole grains *6 to 8 servings a day: Opt for whole grain products like whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, and oatmeal instead of refined grains. Whole grains provide fiber and important nutrients that support heart health. One serving may be 1/2 cup of cooked cereal, rice, or pasta, 1 slice of bread or 1-ounce dry cereal.
  • Choose lean proteins, *6 or less servings per day (Approx 28 gms): If you aren’t a vegetarian, then include lean protein sources like skinless poultry, fish, beans, lentils, and tofu in your diet. These options are lower in saturated fat compared to red meat and provide essential nutrients without raising blood pressure. Limit to one egg per day.
  • Include low-fat dairy products,* 2 to 4 servings per day: Consume low-fat or fat-free dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. They are excellent sources of calcium and help regulate blood pressure. For example, 1 serving of low-fat milk would amount to 240 ml, 1 cup yoghurt-285 grams and 45 gms of low-fat cheese.
  • Nuts, and seeds, 4 to 5 servings a week: Nuts and seeds can include almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, kidney beans, lentils, and split peas. One serving is 1/3 cup nuts, 2 tblsp peanut butter, 2 tblsp seeds.
  • Incorporate healthy fats and oils: Choose unsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds. These fats can help improve heart health when consumed in moderation. Moreover, the DASH diet recommends oils like safflower, sesame oil, canola, or olive oil.
  • Increase potassium intake: Potassium counteracts the effects of sodium and helps lower blood pressure. Include potassium-rich foods in your diet, such as bananas, oranges, tomatoes, avocados, spinach, sweet potatoes, and white beans.
  • Limit added sugars and sugary beverages: Reduce your intake of sugary foods and drinks, as they can contribute to weight gain and potentially increase blood pressure. Opt for water, herbal tea, or unsweetened beverages instead.
  • Avoid Alcohol: If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Limit intake to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

The Benefits of the DASH diet

Reduces Blood Pressure

The Normal blood pressure for adults is a systolic pressure below 120 mmHg and a diastolic pressure below 80 mmHg red as 120/80. Studies have found how the DASH diet reduced blood pressure even when they did not restrict salt or lost weight. While the greatest reduction was seen in those with lowest salt consumption, it must be noted, lower than the recommended level of serum sodium can also put you at risk of health issues. Moreover, reducing blood pressure alone does not decrease the risk of heart disease but combined factors of a healthy lifestyle including diet and exercise.

It Might Help in Weight Loss

Due to the reduced intake of calorie rich sugary and processed foods, the diet could make you lose weight, however those trying to lose weight will eventually have to follow a calorie restriction diet to do so. Losing weight automatically reduces blood pressure.

Other Benefits

How To Make Your Diet More DASH Like

It might not be easy to follow the DASH diet, but you need to make some changes in how you currently eat. Here are some tips on how to make your diet look more like the DASH.

  • Change your eating habits gradually.
  • Introduce more vegetables to your diet by eating salads for lunch or simply adding veggies like cucumber, lettuce, shredded carrots, or tomatoes to meals and sandwiches. Ensure your plate always has something green.
  • Limit your intake of foods high in saturated fats like fatty meats, full-fat dairy and oils like coconut and palm oil. Choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
  • Stick to low-calorie drinks like water, tea, and coffee.
  • Swap refined grains for whole grains.
  • Eat sliced fruit with your cereal or oatmeal for breakfast.
  • Choose lean protein sources like fish, poultry, dals, (lentils) and legumes like peas and beans
  • Cook with vegetable oils.
  • Limit your intake of foods high in added sugars, like soda and candy.
  • Choose fresh fruit or low-fat frozen yogurt for dessert instead of high-calorie sweets, such as cakes or pies.
  • Snack healthy. Try unsalted rice cakes or popcorn, raw vegetables, or yogurt. Dried fruits, seeds, and nuts are also good choices. However, keep portions small since some of these foods are also high in calories.
  • Think of meat as part of your meal, instead of the main course. Limit your servings of lean meat to 6 ounces (170 grams) a day. You can have two 3-ounce (85 grams) servings during the day.
  • Try cooking without meat at least twice each week. Instead, eat beans, nuts, tofu, or eggs for your protein.

The DASH diet restricts you to 2300 calories a day. While it may sound confusing, there is a wealth of information on suggested servings for the DASH diet. It’s important to note that the DASH diet is not a short-term solution but a long-term approach to maintaining healthy blood pressure levels. Combining the DASH diet with regular exercise, stress management, and other healthy lifestyle habits will yield the best results in managing and reducing blood pressure. As always, consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to personalize the diet plan based on your specific needs and medical conditions.