DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The DASH diet is a lifelong approach to healthy eating that's designed to help treat or prevent high blood pressure (hypertension). The DASH diet encourages you to reduce the sodium in your diet and eat a variety of foods rich in nutrients that help lower blood pressure, such as potassium, calcium and magnesium.
By following the DASH diet, you may be able to reduce your blood pressure by a few points in just two weeks. Over time, your systolic blood pressure could drop by seven to 12 points, which can make a significant difference in your health risks.
Because the DASH diet is a healthy way of eating, it offers health benefits besides just lowering blood pressure. The DASH diet is also in line with dietary recommendations to prevent osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
And while the DASH diet is not a weight-loss program, you may indeed lose unwanted pounds because it can help guide you toward healthier meals and snacks.DASH diet: Sodium levels
The DASH diet emphasizes vegetables, fruit and low-fat dairy foods -- and moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry and nuts. In addition to the standard DASH diet, there is also a lower sodium version of the diet. You can choose the version of the diet that meets your health needs:Standard DASH diet. You can consume up to 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day. Lower sodium DASH diet. You can consume up to 1,500 mg of sodium a day.
Both versions of the DASH diet aim to reduce the amount of sodium in your diet compared with what you might get in a more traditional diet, which can amount to a whopping 3,500 mg of sodium a day or more.
The standard DASH diet meets the recommendation from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to keep daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg a day. The lower sodium version of the diet matches the recommendation to reduce sodium to 1,500 mg a day if you're 51 and older, black, or have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. The American Heart Association recommends 1,500 mg as an upper limit for all adults. If you aren't sure what sodium level is right for you, talk to your doctor.DASH diet: What to eat
Both versions of the DASH diet include lots of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. The DASH diet also includes some fish, poultry and legumes. You can eat red meat, sweets and fats in small amounts. The DASH diet is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and total fat.
Here's a look at the recommended servings from each food group for the 2,000-calorie-a-day DASH diet.
Grains: 6 to 8 servings a day
Grains include bread, cereal, rice and pasta. Examples of one serving of grains include 1 slice whole-wheat bread, 1 ounce (oz.) dry cereal, or 1/2 cup cooked cereal, rice or pasta.
Vegetables: 4 to 5 servings a day
Tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, greens and other vegetables are full of fiber, vitamins, and such minerals as potassium and magnesium. Examples of one serving include 1 cup raw leafy green vegetables or 1/2 cup cut-up raw or cooked vegetables.
Fruits: 4 to 5 servings a day
Many fruits need little preparation to become a healthy part of a meal or snack. Like vegetables, they're packed with fiber, potassium and magnesium and are typically low in fat -- exceptions include avocados and coconuts. Examples of one serving include 1 medium fruit or 1/2 cup fresh, frozen or canned fruit or 4 ounces of juice.
Dairy: 2 to 3 servings a day
Milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products are major sources of calcium, vitamin D and protein. But the key is to make sure that you choose dairy products that are low fat or fat-free because otherwise they can be a major source of fat -- and most of it is saturated. Examples of one serving include 1 cup skim or 1 percent milk, 1 cup yogurt, or 1 1/2 oz. cheese.
Lean meat, poultry and fish: 6 or fewer servings a day
Meat can be a rich source of protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc. But because even lean varieties contain fat and cholesterol, don't make them a mainstay of your diet -- cut back typical meat portions by one-third or one-half and pile on the vegetables instead. Examples of one serving include 1 oz. cooked skinless poultry, seafood or lean meat or 1 egg.
Nuts, seeds and legumes: 4 to 5 servings a week
Almonds, sunflower seeds, kidney beans, peas, lentils and other foods in this family are good sources of magnesium, potassium and protein. They're also full of fiber and phytochemicals, which are plant compounds that may protect against some cancers and cardiovascular disease. Serving sizes are small and are intended to be consumed weekly because these foods are high in calories. Examples of one serving include 1/3 cup (1 1/2 oz.) nuts, 2 tablespoons seeds, or 1/2 cup cooked beans or peas.
Fats and oils: 2 to 3 servings a day
Fat helps your body absorb essential vitamins and helps your body's immune system. But too much fat increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The DASH diet strives for a healthy balance by limiting total fat to 27 percent or less of daily calories from fat, with a focus on the healthier monounsaturated fats. Examples of one serving include 1 teaspoon soft margarine, 1 tablespoon mayonnaise or 2 tablespoons salad dressing.
Sweets: 5 or fewer a week
You don't have to banish sweets entirely while following the DASH diet -- just go easy on them. Examples of one serving include 1 tablespoon sugar, jelly or jam, 1/2 cup sorbet, or 1 cup (8 oz.) lemonade.
Drinking too much alcohol can increase blood pressure. The DASH diet recommends that men limit alcohol to two or fewer drinks a day and women one or less.
The DASH diet doesn't address caffeine consumption. The influence of caffeine on blood pressure remains unclear. But caffeine can cause your blood pressure to rise at least temporarily. If you already have high blood pressure or if you think caffeine is affecting your blood pressure, talk to your doctor about your caffeine consumption.DASH diet and weight loss
The DASH diet is not designed to promote weight loss, but it can be used as part of an overall weight-loss strategy. The DASH diet is based on a diet of about 2,000 calories a day. If you're trying to lose weight, though, you may want to eat around 1,600 a day. You may need to adjust your serving goals based on your health or individual circumstances -- something your health care team can help you decide.Tips to cut back on sodium
The foods at the core of the DASH diet are naturally low in sodium. So just by following the DASH diet, you're likely to reduce your sodium intake. You also reduce sodium further by:Using sodium-free spices or flavorings with your food instead of salt Not adding salt when cooking rice, pasta or hot cereal Rinsing canned foods to remove some of the sodium Buying foods labeled "no salt added," "sodium-free," "low sodium" or "very low sodium"
One teaspoon of table salt has about 2,300 mg of sodium, and 2/3 teaspoon of table salt has about 1,500 mg of sodium. When you read food labels, you may be surprised at just how much sodium some processed foods contain. Even low-fat soups, canned vegetables, ready-to-eat cereals and sliced turkey from the local deli -- foods you may have considered healthy -- often have lots of sodium.
You may notice a difference in taste when you choose low-sodium food and beverages. If things seem too bland, gradually introduce low-sodium foods and cut back on table salt until you reach your sodium goal. That'll give your palate time to adjust. It can take several weeks for your taste buds to get used to less salty foods.Putting the pieces of the DASH diet together
Try these strategies to get started on the DASH diet:Change gradually. If you now eat only one or two servings of fruits or vegetables a day, try to add a serving at lunch and one at dinner. Rather than switching to all whole grains, start by making one or two of your grain servings whole grains. Increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains gradually can also help prevent bloating or diarrhea that may occur if you aren't used to eating a diet with lots of fiber. You can also try over-the-counter products to help reduce gas from beans and vegetables. Reward successes and forgive slip-ups. Reward yourself with a nonfood treat for your accomplishments, such as renting a movie, purchasing a book or getting together with a friend. Everyone slips, especially when learning something new. Remember that changing your lifestyle is a long-term process. Find out what triggered your setback and then just pick up where you left off with the DASH diet. Add physical activity. To boost your blood pressure lowering efforts even more, consider increasing your physical activity in addition to following the DASH diet. Combining both the DASH diet and physical activity makes it more likely that you'll reduce your blood pressure. Get support if you need it. If you're having trouble sticking to your diet, talk to your doctor or dietitian about it. You might get some tips that will help you stick to the DASH diet.
Remember, healthy eating isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. What's most important is that, on average, you eat healthier foods with plenty of variety -- both to keep your diet nutritious and to avoid boredom or extremes. And with the DASH diet, you can have both.