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11 Things to Know About the DASH Diet

Doctors and dietitians love it, and it's won top honors from U.S. News & World Report as the best overall diet for several years. But what exactly is the DASH diet and what's on the DASH diet food list?

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Vegetables, fruit, seeds, cereals, beans, spices, herbsSentelia/Shutterstock

What is the DASH diet?

The DASH diet—short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension—is a healthy-eating, heart-conscious plan that aims to treat or prevent high blood pressure by lowering sodium intake and increasing the consumption of nutrient-rich foods.

Following a DASH diet food list can lower your blood pressure in two weeks; over time, your systolic blood pressure could drop as much as 14 points. (Systolic pressure, the first number in a blood pressure reading, measures the pressure when your heart is contracting.) The DASH diet is also in line with dietary recommendations that help prevent osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

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How does it lower blood pressure?

For starters, cutting back on salt can help regulate your blood pressure. But in addition to that, the DASH diet, which includes a focus on vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins, as well as on portion control—will not include unhealthy fat and cholesterol-inducing foods.

Rather, it will increase foods with fiber and protein. The diet also delivers foods high in potassium, calcium, and magnesium, all of which help to lower blood pressure.

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Is it good for weight loss?

The short answer: Yes. The slightly longer one: This diet wasn’t intended for weight loss, though you will see losses as you eat things on the DASH diet food list, especially if you specifically design your daily meal plan with fewer calories.

A 2016 study published in Obesity Reviews, which looked at the results of several studies, found that adults who followed the DASH diet were more likely to lose weight in a span of 24 weeks than those who adhered to other low-calorie diets.

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Are there any other benefits to following the DASH diet?

Aside from lowering blood pressure, the DASH diet can lower cholesterol levels, as well as reduce your risk for cancer, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

According to a 2018 preliminary study presented at the AAN Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, a DASH-style diet, meaning it’s rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, is associated with an 11 percent decreased risk of developing depression among people with an average age of 81.

However, further research is needed to confirm the finding and understand what specific nutrients in the DASH diet may provide this mental health benefit.

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So what exactly is on the DASH diet food list?

Instead of outlining an approved food list, the DASH diet focuses on the number of servings in different food groups. That said, you’ll generally be shifting your focus from meats, dairy, and treats to whole fruits and veggies, with the other stuff sprinkled in. What does that translate to for a real meal? If you’re following a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet and staying below 2,300 milligrams of sodium, your menu might look similar to this sample day:

Breakfast

  • ½ cup instant oatmeal,
  • 1 slice whole wheat toast topped with 1 tbsp peanut butter and 1 medium banana
  • 1 cup low-fat milk
  • unsweetened tea or unsweetened coffee

Lunch: Chicken breast sandwich

  •  2 slices (3 oz) chicken breast, skinless
  • 2 slices whole wheat bread
  • 1 slice (3/4 oz) reduced-fat cheddar cheese
  • 2 large leaves romaine lettuce, 2 slices tomato
  • 1 tbsp low-fat mayonnaise
  • 1 cup cantaloupe pieces,
  • 1 cup fresh pineapple

Dinner: Spaghetti

  • 1 cup cooked whole wheat spaghetti noodles
  • ¾ cup low-salt vegetarian spaghetti sauce
  • 3 tbsp Parmesan cheese
  • 2-3oz lean ground turkey

Snacks

  • 1/3 cup almonds (unsalted)
  • ¼ cup dried apricots
  • 1 cup fat-free, no sugar added
  • fruit yogurt

doughnutsiStock/Peter de Kievith

What foods do I need to eliminate from my diet?

This probably won’t come as a huge shock to you, but you’ll be cutting back on sweets: candy, cookies, salty snacks, soda, alcohol, and processed foods. DASH actually does allow limited sweets, but only about five servings per week. One thing to remember is that sodium lurks in unlikely places—such as salad dressings, cold cuts, bread, and cereal—so you’ll need to become an expert label-reader. (Check out these healthy-eating tips.)

Top view, close-up of whole fresh raw salmon fillet with seasonings on wooden board, gray stone background. Preparing salmon fillet for cooking, healthy eating concept Elena Eryomenko/Shutterstock

If I’m cutting out salt, how can I add flavor to my meals?

Spices and herbs are great, flavorful substitutes for straight-up salt. Lisa Mikus, RD at Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition Services and coauthor of Everyday Diabetes Meals: Cooking for One or Two, suggests these tweaks: “Try adding cinnamon to your oatmeal, cook salmon with lemon and dill, use dried rosemary on potatoes, and cook chicken fajitas with garlic powder and cumin.” While dried-spice blends can be a good addition to your pantry, make sure the ones you choose don’t contain salt. (Try these healthy fish recipes for dinner.)

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Who is the DASH diet best for?

 

The DASH diet, which was developed with funds from the National Institutes of Health, is recommended for anyone with high blood pressure or a family history of high blood pressure, heart disease, or stroke. That said, following it—or even incorporating some of its principles—can be good for almost anyone since it’s a healthy lifestyle choice, not a fad diet. After all, if you’re regularly eating out or eating a lot of processed foods, you’re likely consuming too much sodium. And research indicates that aside from the obvious health problems, a sodium-heavy diet could lead to overeating and weight gain.

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Are there any dangers associated with it?

You need some sodium in your diet, and the standard DASH diet allows up to 2,300 milligrams per day. (The lower-sodium version recommends 1,500 milligrams.) So you don’t need to cut out all salt (unless your doctor recommends it).

Mikus points out that this diet might not be the optimal choice for high-endurance athletes who sweat excessively or for people with hypotension (low blood pressure) or chronic gastrointestinal conditions in which malabsorption is an issue. (Here are signs you’re on the wrong diet plan.)

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How hard is it to maintain the DASH diet?

On the good, stress-free days when you have the time and energy to cook at home, it’s relatively easy. But as with any diet, there are challenges when you want to grab something on the go or eat at a restaurant. Mikus advises: “Read the nutrition facts panel when available, ask for dressings and sauces to be put on the side, and avoid [food] with words such as fried, battered, or creamed.”

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I’ve heard that this is the best diet out there. Is that true?

Many experts consider the DASH diet to be the healthiest overall eating plan, though a wide body of research also points to the effectiveness of the Mediterranean diet. The two approaches are similar in the types of foods they recommend—though the Mediterranean diet adds more healthy fats such as fish and olive oil—and they both lower blood pressure and cholesterol. The U.S. News and World Report has consistently named the DASH diet as one of the best diets overall, and in 2020 it tied with the Mediterranean diet for the No. 1 rank.

While the DASH diet is a proven plan, the best diet is the one that makes you want to follow it over the long haul.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Cynthia Sass, MPH, RDN, CSSD, on January 03, 2020