How the DASH Diet Can Help Lower Blood Pressure

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.

The DASH diet encourages high-potassium foods like banana. (Image: Janna Danilova/iStock/GettyImages)

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 have consistently shown the same results over the last 20 years, which is why DASH remains the diet of choice for those struggling to bring down their 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).

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.

Who Shouldn't Do 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.

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

Fresh is always best, but if fresh produce is not available, your next best bet is frozen. If fresh or frozen are really alluding you, though, canned works. When buying canned fruits and veggies, look for no added salt and no added sugar. Since the DASH diet is heavy on fruit and vegetables, try your hardest to get five servings of each every day.

  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Tomatoes
  • Greens/spinach
  • Cantaloupe
  • Potatoes
  • Oranges
  • Mushrooms

Unsalted Nuts/Seeds/Legumes

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.

  • Almonds
  • Peanuts
  • Walnuts
  • Lentils
  • All Beans (black, pinto, kidney, chickpeas, etc)
  • Flaxseed

Lean Proteins

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
  • Fish
  • 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.

Breakfast

Snack 1

3 cups Grecian Popcorn: 205 mg sodium

Lunch

Snack 2

1 cup carrots and Curry Hummus: 396 mg sodium

Dinner

Total Sodium for the Day: 1,920 mg

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