If you have high blood pressure, your doctor may have advised you to cut back on your sodium and start the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.
High blood pressure — readings higher than 130/80 — is referred to as the silent killer, often responsible for strokes and heart attacks. If your readings are high, you join the 1 in 3 Americans with this condition, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The good news is that the DASH diet has been proven to help.
What Is the DASH Diet?
The concept for the DASH diet was born in April 1997 when the results of a study were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers studied over 400 individuals with high blood pressure and found that a diet high in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy — but low in sodium — could substantially lower blood pressure.
Similar studies over the years have consistently shown the same results, including an April 2020 meta-analysis in The BMJ that reviewed 121 randomized trials and found DASH was among the most effective diets for reducing blood pressure over six months (although the effects leveled off after about a year).
And a July 2020 systematic review in the Journal of Hypertension compared an array of plant-forward diets (including the Mediterannean diet and vegan diet) and found that the DASH diet was linked to the greatest reductions in blood pressure.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information also indicates that the DASH diet can help you control your blood sugar and lower your bad cholesterol and triglycerides.
And it may even help you lose a little weight.
How Does the DASH Diet Work?
We all know that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is good for us, but why does this work so well against hypertension? It's actually the combination of foods in the diet that work together to bring blood pressure down.
A key component, though, is cutting down on sodium, which can be found in abundance in processed foods.
And in fact, most of us are getting too much — the average U.S. adult's intake of sodium is over 3,600 milligrams per day, according to December 2017 research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which is well above the American Heart Association (AHA)'s recommended limit of 2,300 milligrams (about 1 teaspoon).
Are You Eating Too Much Salt?
Potassium is the next major benefit to this diet. According to the AHA, potassium helps your body release sodium and it can lessen the tension on your blood vessels — both of which give your body a break from rising blood pressure.
What to Eat on the DASH Diet
The DASH diet encourages eating mostly fruits and vegetables, nuts, lean proteins, low-fat dairy and whole grains. Beyond that, followers are told to keep their daily sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams.
Processed foods — frozen meals, chips, crackers and other snack foods — contain a significant amount of sodium, so it's best to stay away from most of these foods, or to at least make sure you're reading nutrition labels with a careful eye.
Fruits and Vegetables
A diet rich in fruits and veggies may protect heart health, according to a May 2020 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which noted the DASH diet specifically as an effective eating pattern.
Opt for fresh or frozen veggies and fruit whenever possible, as these tend to have the highest nutrient content.
Canned produce works, too, if you're in a pinch, but keep in mind that it sometimes has less-than-healthy additives, so be sure to look for "no added salt" and "no added sugar" on the label.
Since the DASH diet is heavy on fruit and vegetables, try your hardest to get five servings of each every day.
Always choose unsalted or lightly salted nuts at the grocery store.
Do the same with canned beans. Buying dried beans is ideal, but they can be time-consuming to cook. When choosing canned beans, always grab the low-sodium version and rinse them before eating to knock the sodium level down further.
You should aim to eat nuts, seeds and legumes at least three times per week. Keep in mind, though, that certain types of nuts and seeds are higher in fat and calories than others, so if you're trying to limit calorie or fat intake, make sure to compare nutrition labels.
- All Beans (black, pinto, kidney, chickpeas, etc)
While there's no firm consensus on saturated fat's role in our health, it's still smart to limit your saturated fat to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories, as recommended by the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute. So, limiting your red meat is a great idea, to no more than once per week to start. Two servings per day of lean protein is suggested.
- Chicken breast
- Lean pork
- Turkey Breast
The Rest of Your Diet
The rest of the recommendations are simple:
- Stick with whole grains, such as brown rice, whole-wheat bread, oatmeal and popcorn for your grains.
- Choose low-fat dairy to keep your saturated fat down, and aim for two servings each day.
- Limit your alcohol to no more than one drink per day for women and two for men.
- Finally, stay away from highly processed foods, refined sugars and fried foods.
A DASH Diet Meal Plan
The DASH diet doesn't offer recommendations on how to portion out your food, so make sure you are sticking with appropriate serving sizes and measuring your food as needed.
A good rule of thumb is to keep each meal at or below 500 milligrams of sodium. That will give you some wiggle room with your snacks and drinks throughout the day.
3 cups Grecian Popcorn: 205 mg sodium
1 cup carrots and Curry Hummus: 396 mg sodium
Total Sodium for the Day: 1,920 mg
Who Shouldn't Try the DASH Diet?
For the majority of those with high blood pressure, the DASH diet is a safe eating plan that can help improve health.
However, if you have any kidney issues, the high amounts of potassium in this diet may not be appropriate for you.
Make sure to speak with your doctor or a registered dietitian, who can help you find the diet plan that works best for your needs.
- National Institutes of Health: "Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)"
- New England Journal of Medicine: "A Clinical Trial of the Effects of Dietary Patterns on Blood Pressure"
- American Journal of Preventative Medicine: "Nutrition Label Use and Sodium Intake in the U.S"
- American Heart Association: "How Potassium Can Help Control High Blood Pressure"
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: "DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "DASH Eating Plan"
- The BMJ: "Comparison of dietary macronutrient patterns of 14 popular named dietary programmes for weight and cardiovascular risk factor reduction in adults: systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised trials"
- Annals of Internal Medicine: "Associations Between Dietary Patterns and Subclinical Cardiac Injury"
- Journal of Hypertension: "The effect of plant-based dietary patterns on blood pressure"