What is the DASH diet?
Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension (DASH) is a plan for healthy eating that can help reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure and even lower already elevated blood pressure. By combining smart eating habits with controlled salt intake and a physically active lifestyle, the DASH diet encourages individuals to make healthier choices and enjoy improved wellness.
With an emphasis on plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, the DASH diet provides a healthy eating plan with a variety of important health benefits. The plan was designed as a flexible diet that can be catered to an individual’s lifestyle and food preferences – incorporating US guidelines for vitamins, minerals, and sodium content. The focus of the DASH diet is high fibre and low to moderate fat content, primarily found in low fat dairy products.
While the DASH diet is often regarded as an Americanized version of the popular and healthy Mediterranean diet, it provides followers with more specific guidelines to make it even easier to understand and stick to. DASH dieters can enjoy plenty of improvements to their health and wellness while still enjoying some of their favorite foods – including nuts, beans, and even whole grain carbohydrates.
The diet is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as an ideal model for healthy eating – for everyone. You’ll be eating increased amounts of key nutrients and staying satiated thanks to the fibre and healthy fats promoted by the DASH eating plan. The eating plan is quite similar to Canada’s Food Guide dietary recommendations, which also shares a focus on fruits and vegetables and healthy dairy products.
This diet also takes your sodium intake into account, and encourages followers to pay attention to the amount of sodium they consume. The diet recommends individuals consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, which is approximately one teaspoon of table salt. According to studies, this will also help contribute to lowered blood pressure.
Where did it come from?
Primarily based on research studies to address hypertension, this diet was specifically designed to help lower blood pressure – but it provides a wide range of additional health benefits that have made it popular with anyone looking for a nutritious eating plan. Originally, this diet was not intended for weight loss, but more recent versions include variations to support healthy weight control and increased options for vegetarian dieters.
The diet was developed around two studies – DASH and DASH-Sodium, which examined the impact of diet on blood pressure. The DASH study incorporated three separate eating plans assigned to individual participants – a plan similar to a regular North American diet; the same plan with additional fruits and vegetables; and the DASH diet.
According to their findings, the two modified diet plans both resulted in lowered blood pressure in the participants, but the DASH diet showed the greatest effect – dropping blood pressure levels within only two weeks of starting the plan. Participants revealed not only healthier blood pressure, but also reduced levels of total cholesterol and “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.
The DASH-Sodium study helped determine the impact of sodium on blood pressure. Participants were assigned to a DASH diet with one of three sodium plans – 3,300 mg of sodium per day, which is the average daily amount consumed by most North Americans; a moderately restricted 2,300 mg of sodium per day; or 1,500 mg of sodium per day, roughly equivalent to the amount of sodium found in about 2/3 of a teaspoon of table salt.
All participants showed decreased blood pressure due to the DASH diet, but the less salt consumed by each individual, the greater the decrease in blood pressure. These results were most prominent in participants who already showed elevated blood pressure.
High blood pressure is a major health concern in North America – hypertension affects an estimated one billion people worldwide, approximately 50 million in the US alone, and results in over seven million deaths per year. When an individual has elevated blood pressure, the heart is forced to work harder to pump oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood through the body, and the arteries can become scarred and less flexible. This can lead to damaged organs and can impact the heart, the brain, and the kidneys.
The DASH diet is an attempt to prevent this kind of damage by keeping an individual’s blood pressure in a healthy range. While everyone’s arteries will stiffen as they age, forcing the heart to work harder, keeping your blood pressure down will help slow down this process to ensure lasting health and wellness.
What foods can I have on this diet?
Unlike many other diets that restrict your calorie consumption, followers of the DASH diet are encouraged to stick to the recommended daily intake for their age and activity level. The foods included in this eating plan are readily available for most people in the US, which is something researchers took into account when creating this diet – to ensure the public would be able to adopt the plan easily and successfully.
While processed grains are sugary and contribute to a number of health issues, whole grains actually help reduce your risk of high blood pressure. Packed with fiber, whole grains will help keep you feeling full – so you won’t need to snack on processed, unhealthy foods in between meals.
You’ll also benefit from an increased intake of potassium, which has proven to help lower blood pressure. Whole grains also decrease your body’s risk of resistance to insulin, and reduces damage to your blood vessels.
Potassium is important for lowering blood pressure because it helps balance the electrolytes in our bodies. In fact, eating two bananas every day for two weeks proved in a study to lower blood pressure by 10 per cent – due to the fruit’s high potassium content. However, tons of other fruits can give you some extra potassium to help keep your blood pressure healthy – citrus fruits, like oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits, are full of vitamins and minerals, and one avocado contains almost 700 mg of potassium.
The L-citrulline found in watermelon helps the body create L-arginine, an amino acid that improves circulation. Studies have shown that increased amounts of L-citrulline can even keep pre-hypertension from progressing to full blown hypertension – which is a significant risk factor for heart attacks and strokes.
Anthocyanins have also proven to provide significant protection against high blood pressure – and can be found in darker colored foods like blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, blood oranges, and black currants. These flavonoids seem to have a beneficial effect on both blood vessels and blood flow, according to research.
Research has shown that eating a high-fiber diet can lead to significant reductions in blood pressure – so the DASH diet encourages four to six servings of vegetables daily. You can easily increase the fiber in your diet by increasing your intake of vegetables – and you should aim to eat a variety of different colored produce every day.
With tons of potassium and magnesium, low fat or non fat dairy can dramatically reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure. In addition to being fortified with calcium and rich in protein, dairy is a great heart-healthy food that should be included in any DASH eating plan.
If you’re not concerned with weight management, you can indulge in whole fat dairy – but watch your portions and ensure you’re not overeating.
Poultry, fish, and other lean meats
Full of B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron, zinc, and protein, lean meat is a healthy addition to your DASH diet. Focus on cuts that have a lower fat content – boneless, skinless chicken breasts, turkey cutlets, round steaks and roasts, and 90-97 per cent lean ground meat.
Fish is also an important part of maintaining a DASH diet, particularly cold water fish like tuna, mackerel, sardines, and salmon. With plenty of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, this kind of fish is an important ally in your quest for a healthy cardiovascular system.
Legumes, seeds, and nuts
Nuts are also full of valuable omega-3s, as well as protein and other heart healthy substances like fiber, unsaturated fats, and L-arginine. Legumes, including beans, lentils, and peas, also provide a hefty amount of magnesium and potassium, as well as protein and fiber. They also contain folate, which prevents the build-up of homocysteine – an amino acid which can raise your risk for heart attack and stroke.
If you’re someone who adds a lot of salt to your food to enhance the flavour, you’ll need to find some other options that won’t increase your sodium intake. Using acidic flavourings like lemon or lime juice or even vinegar can bring out the savoriness of your foods, and you can try chopped fresh or dried herbs, garlic, or salt-free seasoning blends to spice up your meals in a DASH friendly way.
What foods should I avoid?
You will want to stay away from highly processed foods with added sugar, high fat snacks, and foods that are high in salt if you want to be successful on the DASH diet. Aim to cut the following foods from your diet completely to stay on track with DASH.
- Salted nuts
- Sodas and other sugary beverages
- Salad dressings
- Sauces and gravies
- White bread and rolls
Salt can be a tricky thing to cut from your diet, since it’s not just the salt you might add to your food that is the issue – there is a ton of salt in many processed and packaged foods. Get used to reading labels to find the sodium content of foods before you purchase them, and look for low-sodium alternatives whenever possible.
What are the health benefits of the DASH diet?
This eating plan has been ranked as the US News & World Report’s best diet of the year for the last seven years, thanks to the many health benefits that followers of this nutritional plan have experienced. Because of the wide range of improvements the diet brings to your health and wellness, it consistently beats out better-known diets – offering complete nutrition as well as a host of health-supporting aspects.
One: You’ll lower your blood pressure.
Obviously, this is the major benefit to following the DASH diet, as it is specifically designed to achieve this goal. For anyone who currently takes medication to control their blood pressure, or individuals who are hoping to better manage symptoms of prehypertension, this diet is a great option.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the DASH diet can reduce your blood pressure by a few points after only two weeks – and over time, you could see your systolic blood pressure drop by eight to 14 points – a significant improvement to your overall health and wellness.
Two: You’ll eat more nutritious meals.
This will take a bit of adjusting, especially for people who’ve never spent much time in the kitchen. But with all the fresh produce you’ll be eating and the reduced amount of processed foods in your diet, you’ll be able to enjoy much more delicious, nutrient-filled meals.
Spend some time trying new fruits and vegetables, and experimenting with different salt-free seasonings to create some healthy meals that will suit your tastes – and that your family can enjoy with you. Instead of grabbing a quick sandwich or fast food burger, a little planning and a focus on DASH means you’ll be enjoying much more nutritious foods.
Three: You’ll have healthier cholesterol levels.
Thanks to the fiber you’ll be eating from fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and nuts and beans, along with the lean cuts of meat and fish and your limited intake of sweets and refined carbohydrates, the DASH diet has shown to improve cholesterol levels. This improvement continues even with a higher fat version of the diet, which also increases “good” cholesterol.
Four: You’ll be able to stick with it.
Because this diet is designed to include readily available, delicious foods, it’s very easier for dieters to maintain. Once you’ve committed to eating the DASH diet, you’ll be able to enjoy a long-term lifestyle change that will be a huge benefit to your overall health and wellness.
The DASH diet is even easy to follow while you’re eating out – just be aware of what foods will sabotage your efforts. There are lots of ways to make the DASH diet work for you, and that’s a huge benefit for anyone looking to improve their well-being.
Five: You’ll enjoy healthy weight maintenance.
Whether you’re looking to lose weight or not, the DASH diet is a great option to ensure you can stick to your goal weight once you’ve reached it. You can follow a customized version of the DASH diet to achieve your weight loss goals, then stick to a higher calorie count to maintain your new weight – and with the healthy options included in this diet, you won’t have to deal with any weight gain after working so hard to lose it.
The DASH plan provides plenty of protein without overloading on carbs, meaning you’ll enjoy building muscle and boosting your metabolism while keeping yourself from ever feeling heavy. And it’s not a short-term diet – this is a new, healthy lifestyle.
Six: You’ll lower your risk of developing osteoporosis.
Most dietary strategies for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis include the increased intake of vitamin D and calcium – which are both found in plenty in many of the foods included in the DASH diet. Research has also revealed that sodium reduction can be another effective option, proving that the DASH diet may have complementary benefits on bone health.
Studies showed that following the DASH diet resulted in “significantly reduced bone turnover,” which may eventually improve bone mineral status if sustained over a longer period of time. The diet is also rich in other nutrients – magnesium, vitamin C, antioxidants, and polyphenols – that have been positively associated with improved bone health.
Seven: You’ll have healthier kidneys.
This diet has proven to lower one’s risk for kidney disease and kidney stones, thanks to all the potassium, magnesium, fiber, and calcium found in the foods encouraged in the DASH eating plan. The diet’s focus on reduced sodium intake is also recommended for those who are at risk for developing kidney disease.
However, the diet should not be followed by patients who have already been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease or those on dialysis without the guidance of a health care professional, as there may be special restrictions for these individuals.
Eight: You’ll be more protected from certain cancers.
Researchers have examined the correlation between the DASH diet and various types of cancer, and have uncovered a positive association relating to reduced salt intake and monitoring consumption of dietary fat. The diet is also low in red meat, which has been linked to cancers of the colon, rectum, esophagus, stomach, lung, prostate, and kidney.
The focus on fresh produce helps prevent a number of cancers, and the emphasis on low-fat dairy can also contribute to a decreased risk for colon cancer.
Nine: You’ll be able to prevent diabetes.
The DASH diet has proven effective in helping prevent insulin resistance, which is shown to be linked to high blood pressure and cardiovascular health risks. By helping dieters manage their sodium intake, eat more fiber and potassium, and maintain a healthy weight, the DASH eating plan helps those who are predisposed to diabetes avoid or delay the onset of this condition.
According to some studies, this impact is even greater when the DASH plan is implemented as a component of a more comprehensive healthy lifestyle – including diet, exercise, and weight control.
Ten: You’ll avoid feeling hungry.
Thanks to a high intake of fiber and protein, the DASH diet will never leave followers with cravings for unhealthy foods – instead, you’ll feel satiated all day and looking forward to your next nutritious, filling meal. Still, it’s a good idea to plan ahead so you can make sure to stay on track by bringing DASH-approved snacks with you, just in case.
Low-fat diets and cutting carbs can leave you feeling hungry and restricted, but because the DASH diet keeps you satisfied, it’s much easier to stick to in the long term.
Eleven: You’ll feel and look younger.
Many followers of this diet claim that the DASH eating plan helps them avoid some of the effects of aging – keeping them looking and feeling younger even as the years go by. By increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are full of valuable antioxidants, you’ll rejuvenate your skin and hair, strengthen and revitalize your bones, joints, and muscles, lose weight, and feel healthier.
Twelve: You’ll enjoy improved mental health.
The boost to your mood and decreased symptoms of disorders like depression or anxiety can be attributed to the lifestyle impacts of the DASH diet – like exercise, moderated alcohol consumption, and avoiding cigarettes. However, the nutrient-rich foods recommended by this eating plan are all helpful in balancing the chemicals and hormones in your brain and in your body, contributing to an improved state of mental health and well-being.
Thirteen: You’ll benefit from stronger brain function.
Researchers have found that the DASH diet can keep your brain sharp and even prevent memory loss, slowing the rate of mental decline even as you age. Also, the low-fat and high-fiber eating plan recommended by DASH results in lowered blood pressure – which is a known risk factor for the development of degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s ad dementia.
The best foods for curbing mental decline, according to research, include vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and legumes and nuts – all of which make up the largest part of the DASH diet.
Fourteen: You’ll reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
Thanks to the DASH diet’s unique ability to lower and control blood pressure, following this diet can make a big difference in your body’s resistance to heart disease. A study from 2010 indicated that the DASH diet may “substantially” lower an individual’s risk for coronary heart disease, which researchers said could bring “great public health benefits, given the enormous and persistent burden of coronary heart disease.”
This is likely because lowered blood pressure allows your heart to function more effectively and efficiently, but could be beneficial for even those who don’t struggle with hypertension and still want to prevent the onset of heart disease.
Fifteen: You’ll have a healthier lifestyle.
The DASH plan isn’t just about diet – it’s about taking manageable steps to control your own health and wellness. By incorporating the elements of nutrition, exercise, and healthful living into your lifestyle, you’ll see a wider range of valuable benefits along with the wellness that comes with DASH eating.
It’s also an easy lifestyle to maintain. Start slowly and train yourself to eat DASH-recommended options and get used to the flavour of food without so much added salt. Work up to exercising multiple times each week. And try to limit your consumption of alcohol and sweets. Soon, you’ll notice that following the DASH diet is second nature – and maintaining your healthy lifestyle doesn’t require any effort at all.
What should I keep in mind when starting this diet?
It can be difficult to change your current eating habits to adopt a new lifestyle, but there is a lot that can be gained by switching to the DASH diet plan. If you’re looking into making this change, you’ll be able to experience the many important benefits the DASH diet offers.
However, there are some things you should keep in mind if you’re just starting on your journey with DASH. You’ll have a much better chance at success if you consider the following tips and suggestions.
DASH is a lifestyle change.
In order to fully enjoy the health benefits of this eating plan, you’ll need to adjust more than just your diet. DASH encourages a complete healthy lifestyle – with plenty of exercise, moderated alcohol intake, and no smoking.
To up your amount of physical activity, shoot for at least 30 to 60 minutes of exercise each day. You can either engage in a specific kind of exercise that you enjoy, or do something else active – clean your house, do some gardening, play at the park with your kids or your dog. It doesn’t have to be hard work, just as long as you get your heart rate up and your blood flowing.
Your alcohol intake should also be limited, to ensure your best health. Women should consume no more than two drinks each day, with a weekly limit of 10 drinks, and men should stick to three per day and a weekly maximum of 15. Obviously, if you take medications for your blood pressure or other health issues, it’s a good idea to discuss your alcohol consumption with your doctor to ensure any amount is acceptable.
Of course, smoking is always damaging to your health, but is especially important to avoid if you’re trying to lower your blood pressure. Smoking increases your risk of developing heart disease or other issues, so take steps to quit and ensure that your home and workplace are smoke-free.
Drink more water.
If you’re trying to cut down on alcohol or reduce your intake of sugary fruit juices or sodas, this is a great way to keep yourself hydrated and less likely to indulge in some of those unhealthy alternatives. Water is important when you’ve upped your intake of fiber, so you can avoid the discomfort of constipation. You’ll also be retaining less water as a result of lowered sodium consumption.
You can also consume additional water in the form of tea – another healthy alternative to sugary beverages or alcohol. Green tea is especially great for a healthy diet as it will speed up your metabolism and reduces your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This is a perfect way to get more water and enjoy some other health benefits, as well.
To successfully adopt a healthier lifestyle, it’s always a good idea to make small changes one step at a time rather than introducing a large, dramatic change. This way, you’ll hardly notice each individual step – and you’ll be much more likely to stay committed to your new, healthier lifestyle.
Think about what you already eat, and look for opportunities to incorporate DASH diet foods whenever you can. Focus more on vegetables instead of building your meal around meats or pastas. Eat fruit instead of desserts, or switch out your morning cup of orange juice for an actual orange, instead.
With a little preparation, eating DASH-style can be second nature – and easy to keep up over time. Dried fruit or chopped veggies are easy to pack and bring with you for quick snacks at the office or on the go, so there’s no excuse for straying from this healthy eating plan.
Keep an eye on your blood pressure.
This is especially key if you’re not DASH dieting to lose weight. By regularly checking your blood pressure, you’ll be able to track your progress and feel good about the results – giving you a bit of extra motivation to stick to your diet and lifestyle program to keep achieving greater health and wellness. It’s exciting to see those numbers dropping, so give yourself the chance to celebrate.
How can I get started?
Since the DASH plan focuses primarily on plant-based foods, it’s easy to incorporate this diet into your lifestyle by simply increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables – along with portions of low and non-fat dairy, lean meats, poultry, and fish, plenty of whole grains, and a variety of healthy fats. However, if you’re an inexperienced chef, you’ll need to get used to spending some more time in the kitchen and develop some cooking skills to make the most of this eating plan.
This diet is very filling and easy to follow – so stock up on approved DASH plan foods and use these recipes to inspire your adventures in the kitchen. Hopefully, you’ll discover some new favorite ingredients and learn interesting methods to prepare your food. The more you practice cooking DASH-style, the more you’ll be able to come up with your own ways of creating healthier versions of classic recipes.
Hearty Pancakes (adapted from this recipe)
1½ cups of whole-wheat flour
1½ tablespoons of baking powder
2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed
½ cup of rolled oats
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
3 tablespoons of raw honey
1 tablespoon of coconut oil
2½ cups of almond milk
3 large egg whites
1. Using a large bowl, thoroughly mix all dry ingredients.
2. Combine wet ingredients in a separate bowl – honey, oil, almond milk, and egg whites.
3. Add wet ingredient mixture to dry mix, and stir gently until mixtures are just combined. Place batter in the fridge and let it rest for about half an hour.
4. Over medium heat, warm a non-stick pan. Ladle approximately ¼ cup of batter for each pancake, cooking until bubbles begin to form on the top.
5. Flip pancakes and cook until brown.
6. Serve warm with toppings of your choice – almond butter and sugar-free syrup, fresh fruit, or powdered sugar.
Fresh Granola Bars (adapted from this recipe)
2 cups of rolled oats
½ cup of coconut flour
½ cup of dry milk
½ cup of sliced nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts)
½ cup of dried cranberries
½ cup of pumpkin seeds
½ teaspoon of salt
1 cup of raw honey
½ cup of natural nut butter, no salt added
1 tablespoon of coconut oil
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and use a small amount of coconut oil to lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
2. Mix together dry ingredients in a large bowl before setting aside for now.
3. Use a small saucepan to warm honey, peanut or almond butter, and coconut oil over medium-low heat. Blend well, but don’t let the mixture boil. Add the vanilla before removing from heat.
4. Pour the warm mixture over the dry ingredients and quickly stir it all together. You want a sticky consistency, but not a wet one.
5. Spoon the mixture onto your baking pan and press it firmly to remove air pockets.
6. Bake for approximately 25 minutes, until the edge begins to turn brown.
7. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack for about ten minutes.
8. Cut into bars and allow them to cool before storing them in airtight containers in the refrigerator.
Italian Puttanesca Sauce (adapted from this recipe)
4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
4 black olives, pitted and sliced
4 green olives, pitted and sliced
1 cup of black beans, drained and rinsed
1½ tablespoons of capers, drained and rinsed
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
¼ cup of fresh basil, chopped
1 cup of fresh spinach, chopped
¼ teaspoon of red pepper flakes
+ black pepper, to taste
1. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, stirring thoroughly to ensure oil coats all ingredients evenly.
2. Let stand, covered, for about a half hour. Stir occasionally.
3. While sauce marinates, cook brown rice for as many servings as you need.
4. Serve puttanesca over warm cooked rice, seasoned with ground black pepper.
Fennel and Pear Salad (adapted from this recipe)
6 cups of salad greens (include baby spinach and kale)
1 medium bulb of fennel, thinly sliced
2 pears, cored and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons of feta cheese
¼ cup of toasted walnuts, chopped
¼ cup of dried cranberries
2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
+ black pepper, to taste
1. In a large bowl, combine salad greens and fennel and toss with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
2. Add pear, feta cheese, walnuts, and cranberries and stir thoroughly.
3. Serve immediately, seasoned with ground black pepper. Add cooked chicken breast for extra protein, if desired.
Maple Glazed Salmon (adapted from this recipe)
¼ cup of maple syrup (without added sugar)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
½ cup of balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
½ teaspoon of smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon of sea salt
¼ teaspoon of ground black pepper
Fresh salmon fillets (around 6)
+ fresh mint, for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and use olive oil cooking spray to lightly coat a baking pan.
2. Over low heat, combine syrup, garlic, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, and smoked paprika. Remove from heat before it starts to boil and divide the mixture into two bowls – half for basting, and another half for later use.
3. Place salmon fillets skin-side down on the prepared pan, and brush with syrup mixture. Bake for approximately ten minutes.
4. Remove salmon from oven and brush again with syrup mixture. Bake for another five minutes.
5. Repeat process until salmon flakes easily, which should take around 20 to 25 minutes.
6. Serve fillets with vegetables and rice, sprinkled with salt and pepper and coated with reserved syrup mixture. Add a few mint leaves to garnish.
Beef Stroganoff with Rice (adapted from this recipe)
½ red onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
½ pound boneless beef round steak, fat removed – cut into ¾-inch strips
½ can of fat-free cream of mushroom soup
½ cup of water
1 tablespoon of whole wheat flour
½ teaspoon paprika
½ cup of Greek yogurt
1. Use a non-stick pan to sauté onions and garlic for about five minutes, until onion is translucent and garlic is soft.
2. Add beef, and cook until meat is cooked through. Drain and put to the side.
3. Over medium heat, combine soup, water, and flour – whisking frequently. After five minutes, when sauce has thickened, add it to the frying pan and sprinkle with paprika.
4. Continue stirring mixture over medium heat before adding Greek yogurt and combining well.
5. Serve over cooked brown rice instead of traditional egg noodles for a healthier dish.