The Complete Beginner’s Guide to the DASH Diet

High blood pressure affects more than 1.1 billion people worldwide.

Unfortunately, this number is rising. In fact, a recent study found that the number of people with high blood pressure has doubled in the last 40 years (1).

This is a serious health concern, as people who have high blood pressure are at a higher risk of health conditions like heart disease, kidney failure and stroke (2).

Diet is thought to play a major role in the development of high blood pressure. This has led scientists and policy makers to develop specific dietary strategies to help reduce it (3, 4).

This article is a detailed review of the DASH diet, which was designed to combat high blood pressure and reduce people’s risk of heart disease.

Blood Pressure Monitor and Veggies in a Heart-Shaped Bowl

What Is the DASH Diet?

DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.

It’s a diet that’s often recommended to people who want to prevent or treat hypertension (high blood pressure) and reduce their risk of heart disease.

The DASH diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats.

The diet was designed after researchers noticed that high blood pressure was much less common in those who followed a plant-based diet, such as vegans and vegetarians, than in meat eaters (5, 6).

This led researchers to design a diet that provided liberal amounts of the nutrients that appeared to protect people against high blood pressure.

The result was the DASH diet, which is high in fruits and vegetables and contains some lean protein sources like chicken, fish and beans. The diet is low in red meat, salt, added sugars and fat.

It’s thought that one of the main reasons people with high blood pressure can benefit from this diet is because it reduces the amount of salt they’re eating.

The regular DASH diet program recommends that people eat no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (or 1 teaspoon), which is in line with most national guidelines.

The lower-salt version recommends that people eat no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day (or 3/4 of a teaspoon).

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Bottom Line: The DASH diet was designed to reduce high blood pressure. It’s rich in fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, but it restricts red meat, salt, added sugars and fat.

The DASH Diet Lowers Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is a measure of the force put on your blood vessels and organs as your blood passes through them. It’s counted in two numbers:

  • Systolic pressure: The pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats.
  • Diastolic pressure: The pressure in your blood vessels between heartbeats, when your heart is at rest.

Normal blood pressure for adults is a systolic pressure below 120 mmHg and a diastolic pressure below 80 mmHg. This is normally written with the systolic pressure written above the diastolic pressure, like this: 120/80.

People with a blood pressure reading of 140/90 are considered to have high blood pressure.

Interestingly, the DASH diet has been shown to lower blood pressure in both healthy people and those who already have high blood pressure.

Furthermore, it achieved this even though people didn’t lose weight or restrict their salt intake (7, 8).

However, when sodium intake was restricted, they found that the DASH diet lowered blood pressure even further. In fact, the greatest reductions in blood pressure were seen in people with the lowest intakes of salt (9).

These low-salt DASH diet results were most impressive in people who already had high blood pressure, reducing it by an average of 11 points. In people with normal blood pressure, it reduced blood pressure by three points (5).

This is in line with other studies that have found that restricting salt intake can reduce blood pressure, especially in those who have high blood pressure (10).

However, it’s important to note that a decrease in blood pressure does not always translate to a decreased risk of heart disease or death (11).

Bottom Line: Following a DASH dietary pattern is effective at lowering blood pressure, especially in people who already have high blood pressure.

Can You Lose Weight on the DASH Diet?

Apples, Grapes, a Fork and a Knife on Scales

The DASH diet has been shown to reduce blood pressure, regardless of whether people lose weight or not.

However, if you already have high blood pressure, chances are you have been advised to lose weight.

This is because the more you weigh, the higher your blood pressure is likely to be (12, 13, 14).

Additionally, losing weight has been shown to lower blood pressure (15, 16).

Some studies have shown that people can lose weight on the DASH diet (17, 18, 19).

However, those who have lost weight on the DASH diet have been in a controlled calorie deficit, meaning they were told to eat fewer calories than they were using.

Given that the DASH diet cuts out lots of high-fat, sugary foods, people may find that they automatically reduce their calorie intake and lose weight. Other people may have to consciously restrict their intake (20).

Either way, if you want to lose weight on the DASH diet, you’ll still need to reduce your calorie intake so you’re taking in fewer calories than you are using up.

Bottom Line: The DASH diet could help you lose weight. However, for weight loss to occur, you still have to make sure you’re eating fewer calories than you’re burning.

Other Potential Health Benefits

Salmon and Vegetables

It’s well documented that the DASH diet can help lower blood pressure. However, the diet has additional benefits.

Here are some recorded benefits of the DASH diet:

  • Decreases cancer risk: A recent review found that people following the DASH diet had a lower risk of some cancers, including colorectal and breast cancer (21).
  • Lowers metabolic syndrome risk: Some studies have shown that the DASH diet reduces your risk of developing metabolic syndrome by up to 81% (22, 23).
  • Lowers diabetes risk: Following the DASH diet has been linked to a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Some studies have also shown that it can improve insulin resistance (24, 25).
  • Decreases heart disease risk: One recent review showed that in women, following a DASH-like diet was associated with a 20% lower risk of heart disease and a 29% lower risk of stroke (26).

Many of these protective effects have been attributed to the high fruit and vegetable content of the DASH diet. This is because, in general, eating more fruits and vegetables is linked to a reduced risk of disease (27, 28, 29, 30).

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Bottom Line: A DASH dietary pattern could reduce your risk of some cancers, diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome.

Does the DASH Diet Work for Everyone?

One of the key findings of DASH diet studies was that the greatest reductions in blood pressure were seen in those with the lowest intakes of salt.

While this is interesting, the benefits of salt restriction on health and lifespan are not clear cut. For people with high blood pressure, reducing salt intake has been shown to significantly affect blood pressure (6).

However, in people who have normal blood pressure, the effects of reducing salt intake are much smaller (10).

This could partly be explained by the theory that some people are “salt sensitive,” meaning some people are more sensitive to salt and that it has a greater effect on their blood pressure (31).

Bottom Line: Lowering salt intake from very high levels is beneficial for most people. Further salt restriction, as advised on the DASH diet, may only be beneficial for people who are “salt sensitive” and have high blood pressure.

Restricting Salt Too Much Is Not Good for You

Salt Shaker and Pile

Eating too little salt has been linked to health problems, such as an increased risk of heart disease, insulin resistance and fluid retention.

The low-salt version of the DASH diet recommends that people eat no more than 1,500 mg of sodium (about 3/4 of a teaspoon) per day.

However, it’s currently unclear whether there are any benefits to reducing salt intake this low, even in people with high blood pressure (32).

In fact, a recent review found that the current evidence doesn’t show a link between salt intake and the risk of death from heart disease. This is despite the fact that lowering salt intake caused a modest reduction in blood pressure (11).

Overall, most people eat too much salt. This means lowering your salt intake from very high amounts of 9–12 grams a day to 5–6 grams a day may be beneficial (6).

This target can be achieved easily by reducing the amount of highly processed food in your diet and eating mostly whole foods.

Bottom Line: Although reducing salt intake from processed foods is beneficial for most people, eating too little salt may also be harmful.

What to Eat on the Diet

Mix of Various Fruits

The DASH diet doesn’t list specific foods to eat.

Instead, it recommends a dietary pattern that focuses on the number of servings of different food groups.

The number of servings you can eat depends on how many calories you need to eat to achieve your goals. Below is an explanation of the number of servings you should be aiming for, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Whole Grains: 6–8 Servings per Day

Examples of whole grains include whole wheat or whole grain breads, whole grain breakfast cereals, wheat germ, brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, couscous and oatmeal.

Examples of a serving include:

  • 1 slice of whole grain bread
  • 1 ounce of dry, whole grain cereal
  • 1/2 cup of cooked rice, pasta or cereal

Vegetables: 4–5 Servings per Day

All vegetables are allowed on the DASH diet. This includes broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, green beans and cabbage, to name a few.

Examples of a serving include:

  • 1 cup of raw, leafy vegetables like spinach or kale
  • 1/2 cup of cut-up raw or cooked vegetables like broccoli, carrots, squash or tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup of vegetable juice

Fruits: 4–5 Servings per Day

If you’re following the DASH approach, you’ll be eating a lot of fruit. Examples of fruits you can eat include apples, pears, peaches, berries and tropical fruits like pineapple and mango.

Examples of a serving include:

  • 1 medium fruit or 1/4 cup of dried fruit
  • 1/2 cup of fresh, frozen or canned fruit
  • 1/2 cup of fruit juice

Dairy Products: 2–3 Servings per Day

Dairy products on the DASH diet should be low in fat. Examples include skim milk and low-fat cheese and yogurt.

Examples of a serving include:

  • 1 cup of low-fat milk or yogurt
  • 1.5 ounces of low-fat cheese

Lean Chicken, Meat and Fish: 6 or Fewer Servings per Day

Choose lean cuts of meat and try to eat a serving of red meat only occasionally, no more than once or twice a week.

Examples of a serving include:

  • 1 ounce of cooked meat, chicken or fish
  • 1 egg

Nuts, Seeds and Legumes: 4–5 Servings per Week

These include foods like almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, kidney beans, lentils and split peas.

Examples of a serving include:

  • 1/3 cup or 1.5 ounces of nuts
  • 2 tablespoons of nut butter
  • 2 tablespoons or a half ounce of seeds
  • 1/2 cup of cooked legumes

Fats and Oils: 2–3 Servings per Day

The DASH diet recommends that you choose vegetable oils over other oils. These include margarines and oils like canola, corn, olive or safflower. They also recommend you choose low-fat mayonnaise and light salad dressing.

Examples of a serving include:

  • 1 teaspoon of soft margarine
  • 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons of salad dressing

Candy and Added Sugars: 5 or Fewer Servings per Week

Added sugars are kept to a minimum on the DASH diet, so limit your intake of candy, soda and table sugar. The DASH diet also requires you to limit unrefined sugars and alternative sugar sources, like agave nectar.

Examples of a serving include:

  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of jelly or jam
  • 1 cup of lemonade
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Bottom Line: The DASH diet does not list specific foods to eat. Instead, it’s a dietary pattern focused on servings of food groups.

The DASH Diet: A Sample Menu for One Week

Fruit, Muesli, Nuts, Seeds, Coffee and Juice

Here’s an example of a one-week DASH diet meal plan based on 2,000 calories:

Monday

  • Breakfast: 1 cup (90 grams) of oatmeal with 1 cup (240 ml) of skim milk, 1/2 cup (75 grams) of blueberries and 1/2 cup (120 ml) of fresh orange juice.
  • Snack: 1 medium apple and 1 cup (285 grams) of low-fat yogurt.
  • Lunch: Tuna and mayonnaise sandwich made with 2 slices of whole grain bread, 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise, 1.5 cups (113 grams) of green salad and 3 ounces (80 grams) of canned tuna. 1 cup (248 grams) of vegetable soup.
  • Snack: 1 medium banana.
  • Dinner: 3 ounces (85 grams) of lean chicken breast cooked in 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil with 1/2 cup (75 grams) of broccoli and 1/2 cup (75 grams) of carrots. Served with 1 cup (190 grams) of brown rice.

Tuesday

  • Breakfast: 2 slices of whole wheat toast with 1 teaspoon of margarine and 1 tablespoon of jelly or jam. 1/2 cup (120 ml) of fresh orange juice and 1 medium apple.
  • Snack: 1 medium banana.
  • Lunch: 3 ounces (85 grams) of lean chicken breast with 2 cups (150 grams) of green salad, 1.5 ounces (45 grams) of low-fat cheese and 1 cup (190 grams) of brown rice.
  • Snack: 1/2 cup (30 grams) of canned peaches and 1 cup (285 grams) of low-fat yogurt.
  • Dinner: 3 ounces (85 grams) of salmon cooked in 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil with 1 cup (300 grams) of boiled potatoes and 1.5 cups (225 grams) of boiled vegetables.

Wednesday

  • Breakfast: 1 cup (90 grams) of oatmeal with 1 cup (240 ml) of skim milk and 1/2 cup (75 grams) of blueberries. 1/2 cup (120 ml) of fresh orange juice.
  • Snack: 1 medium orange.
  • Lunch: 2 slices of whole wheat bread, 3 ounces (85 grams) of lean turkey, 1.5 ounces (45 grams) of low-fat cheese, 1 teaspoon of margarine, 1/2 cup (38 grams) of green salad and 1/2 cup (38 grams) of cherry tomatoes.
  • Snack: 4 whole grain crackers with 1.5 ounces (45 grams) of cottage cheese and 1/2 cup (75 grams) of canned pineapple.
  • Dinner: 6 ounces (170 grams) of cod fillet, 1 cup (200 grams) of mashed potatoes, 1/2 cup (75 grams) of green peas and 1/2 cup (75 grams) of broccoli.

Thursday

  • Breakfast: 1 cup (90 grams) of oatmeal with 1 cup (240 ml) of skim milk and 1/2 cup (75 grams) of raspberries. 1/2 cup (120 ml) of fresh orange juice.
  • Snack: 1 medium banana.
  • Lunch: Salad made with 4.5 ounces (130 grams) of grilled tuna, 1 boiled egg, 2 cups of green salad, 1/2 cup (38 grams) of cherry tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of low-fat salad dressing and 2 slices of whole wheat toast.
  • Snack: 1/2 cup (30 grams) of canned pears and 1 cup (285 grams) of low-fat yogurt.
  • Dinner: 3 ounces (85 grams) of pork fillet with 1 cup (150 grams) of mixed vegetables and 1 cup (190 grams) of brown rice.

Friday

  • Breakfast: 2 boiled eggs, 2 slices of turkey bacon with 1/2 cup (38 grams) of cherry tomatoes, 1/2 cup (80 grams) of baked beans, 2 slices of whole wheat toast and 1 teaspoon of margarine. 1/2 cup of fresh orange juice (120 ml).
  • Snack: 1 medium apple.
  • Lunch: 2 slices of whole wheat toast, 1 tablespoon of low-fat mayonnaise, 1.5 ounces (45 grams) of low-fat cheese, 1/2 cup (38 grams) of salad greens and 1/2 cup (38 grams) of cherry tomatoes.
  • Snack: 1 cup of fruit salad.
  • Dinner: Spaghetti and meatballs made with 1 cup of spaghetti and 4 ounces (115 grams) of turkey meatballs. 1/2 cup (75 grams) of green peas.

Saturday

  • Breakfast: 2 slices of whole wheat toast with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, 1 medium banana, 2 tablespoons of mixed seeds and 1/2 cup of fresh orange juice (120 ml).
  • Snack: 1 medium apple.
  • Lunch: 3 ounces (85 grams) of grilled chicken, 1 cup of roasted vegetables and 1 cup couscous.
  • Snack: 1/2 cup (30 grams) of mixed berries and 1 cup (285 grams) of low-fat yogurt.
  • Dinner: 3 ounces (85 grams) of pork steak and 1 cup (150 grams) of ratatouille with 1 cup (190 grams) of brown rice, 1/2 cup of lentils and 1.5 ounces (45 grams) low-fat cheese.
  • Dessert: Low-fat chocolate pudding.

Sunday

  • Breakfast: 1 cup (90 grams) of oatmeal with 1 cup (240 ml) of skim milk, 1/2 cup (75 grams) of blueberries and 1/2 cup (120 ml) of fresh orange juice.
  • Snack: 1 medium pear.
  • Lunch: Chicken salad made with 3 ounces (85 grams) of lean chicken breast, 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise, 2 cups (150 grams) of green salad, 1/2 cup (75 grams) of cherry tomatoes, 1/2 tablespoon of seeds and 4 whole grain crackers.
  • Snack: 1 banana and 1/2 cup (70 grams) of almonds.
  • Dinner: 3 ounces of roast beef with 1 cup (150 grams) of boiled potatoes, 1/2 cup (75 grams) of broccoli and 1/2 cup (75 grams) of green peas.

Bottom Line: There are a variety of meals you can eat on this diet. The meal plan above is just one example of what a week on the diet could look like.

How to Make Your Diet More DASH-Like

Because there are no set foods on the DASH diet, you can adapt your current diet to the DASH guidelines by doing the following:

  • Eat more vegetables and fruits.
  • Swap refined grains for whole grains.
  • Choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
  • Choose lean protein sources like fish, poultry and beans.
  • Cook with vegetable oils.
  • Limit your intake of foods high in added sugars, like soda and candy.
  • Limit your intake of foods high in saturated fats like fatty meats, full-fat dairy and oils like coconut and palm oil.

Outside of measured fresh fruit juice portions, this diet recommends you stick to low-calorie drinks like water, tea and coffee.

Bottom Line: It’s possible to adapt your current diet to align with the DASH diet. Simply eat more fruits and vegetables, choose low-fat products and lean proteins and limit your intake of processed, high-fat and sugary foods.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you’re thinking about trying the DASH approach for your blood pressure, then you might have a few questions about other aspects of your lifestyle.

The most commonly asked questions are addressed below.

Can I Drink Coffee on the DASH Diet?

Coffee in a Blue Cup

The DASH diet doesn’t prescribe specific guidelines for coffee. However, some people worry that caffeinated beverages like coffee may increase their blood pressure.

It’s well known that caffeine can cause a short-term increase in blood pressure (33).

Furthermore, this rise is greater in people with high blood pressure (34, 35).

However, a recent review found that despite coffee causing a short-term (1–3 hours) increase in blood pressure, it didn’t increase the long-term risk of high blood pressure or heart disease (33).

For most healthy people with normal blood pressure, 3–4 regular coffees per day are considered safe (36).

However, the slight rise in blood pressure (5–10 mm Hg) caused by caffeine means that people who already have high blood pressure probably need to be more careful with their coffee consumption.

Do I Need to Exercise on the DASH Diet?

The DASH diet has been shown to be even more effective at lowering blood pressure when people are also active (18).

Given the independent benefits of exercise on health, this is not surprising.

It’s recommended to do 30 minutes of moderate activity most days, and it’s important to choose something you enjoy, as you will be more likely to keep it up.

Examples of moderate activity include:

  • Walking (15 min/mile)
  • Running (10 min/mile)
  • Cycling (6 min/mile)
  • Swimming laps (20 mins)
  • Housework (60 mins)

Can I Drink Alcohol on the DASH Diet?

Glass of Red Wine

Drinking too much alcohol can increase your blood pressure (37).

In fact, regularly drinking more than three drinks per day has been linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease (38).

On the DASH diet, it’s recommended that you drink alcohol sparingly and don’t exceed the national government guidelines — two or fewer drinks per day for men and one or fewer drinks per day for women.

Bottom Line: You can drink coffee and alcohol in moderation on the DASH diet. Combining the DASH diet with exercise may make it even more effective.

Should You Try the DASH Diet?

For some people, the DASH diet may be easy to stick to and an effective way to reduce blood pressure.

However, it’s worth noting that reducing salt intake to 1,500 mg or less has not been linked to any hard health benefits, such as a reduced risk of heart disease or death, despite the fact that it can lower blood pressure.

Moreover, the DASH diet is very similar to the standard low-fat diet, which large controlled trials have not shown to reduce the risk of death (39, 40).

Nevertheless, if you have high blood pressure or are a salt-sensitive person, this may be a good dietary approach for you.

But if you are otherwise healthy, the benefits of following the DASH diet are unclear.

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