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DASH Diet, an Eating Plan to Help Lower High Blood Pressure

When it comes to spicing up a meal, just a dash of spice may do. When it comes to lowering your blood pressure, sometimes just a DASH will do as well—The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, that is.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a serious problem affecting 1 in 3 Americans that can lead to major health concerns if it is left unchecked. Fortunately, there are many ways to manage it to keep yourself healthy, including making changes to your diet like the DASH diet.

Read on to learn what the DASH diet is, what foods are allowed, the pros and cons and how to successfully adopt this heart-healthy eating plan.

What is the DASH diet?

The DASH diet is a flexible and balanced healthy-eating plan designed to help prevent and treat high blood pressure. The DASH eating plan is high in some nutrients like fiber, potassium, calcium, magnesium  – which all play a role in heart health – and low in others like saturated and trans fats, added sugars and sodium.”

“Consuming high sodium and empty calories (those high in calorie, low in nutritional value), may increase your risk for high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol and/or kidney failure,” said Karen Hemmes, a registered dietitian at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix.

While other diets may encourage restricting foods or food groups, the DASH diet does not. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) explains the DASH diet “instead provides daily and weekly nutritional goals.” The NHLBI says the recommendations are:

  • Eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains
  • Including fat-free or low-fat dairy, fish, poultry, beans, nuts and vegetable oil
  • Limiting foods high in saturated fat, including fatty meats, full-fat dairy and tropical oils
  • Limiting added sugar, sugary beverages and sweets

Following the DASH diet – the basics

The DASH diet eating plan lets you choose more of a variety of foods regularly available at your grocery store. It is less of a strict plan and more of a set of guidelines to help you make healthier choices.

“A key component to the DASH diet is making sure you are eating a variety of healthy foods, meeting daily serving recommendations of these foods, and not overconsuming calories,” Hemmes said.

Here’s a look at the recommended servings based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day plan. Please note: You may need to consume more or less depending on your age, gender and activity level, so check with your health care provider or a registered dietitian before starting this plan.

  • Fruits and vegetables: 4 to 5 servings a day
  • Whole grains: 6 to 8 servings a day
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk and milk alternatives: 2 to 3 servings a day
  • Lean meat, chicken and fish: 6 ounces or less a day
  • Nuts, seeds and legumes: 4 to 5 servings per week
  • Fats and oils: 2 to 3 servings per day
  • Sweets and added sugars: 5 servings or less a week
  • Sodium: 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day

What to limit or avoid

DASH encourages you to cut back on foods that can raise your blood pressure. These include:

  • High-sugar foods like baked goods, desserts and candy
  • Fatty meats, such as red meat, processed meats and chicken with the skin on
  • Oils that are solid at room temperature like coconut oil and butter
  • Full-fat dairy, such as whole milk, cream and butter
  • Sugary drinks like soda, juice and sweetened coffee & tea
  • The amount of sodium (salt) in your diet

Many Americans eat too much sodium. The standard DASH diet limits sodium intake to about 2,300 milligrams or less per day, depending on the plan your provider recommends.

One way to ensure you’re not overdoing your salt intake is cooking for yourself. “Cooking your own meals allows you to have control over the quality and quantity of the ingredients, limiting harmful ingredients that processed and prepackaged foods may have such as unhealthy trans fats, saturated fats, added sugars and high sodium content,” Hemmes said.

[Read “7 Ways to Lower Your Sodium Intake.”]

Hemmes said if you are choosing a frozen meal, read food labels for sodium content and find something with fewer than 600mg of sodium per meal. Then add an extra serving of vegetables and pair with a glass of low-fat milk or milk alternative.

[Check out “5 Easy and Healthy Tips to Upgrade Your Frozen Dinners.”]

Full DASH plate exercise

Not everyone is going to be interested in counting calories or trying to figure out what a serving size is with every meal, so Hemmes uses a plate model and food models to show appropriate portion sizes for her patients.

“A way to visualize your meals is that half your plate should be filled with fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, a quarter of your plate should have a starch or whole grain and the last quarter should have a lean protein,” she said. “A portion of low-fat milk or yogurt is also encouraged.”

Benefits of the DASH diet

The research is out, and the DASH diet is considered a health intervention that has a number of benefits—and not just for those with high blood pressure.

“Studies show that the DASH diet can lower blood pressure in as little as two weeks, but it can also lower LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels in the blood,” Hemmes said. “It can also be helpful for those with type 2 diabetes and gout.

The eating plan is also very flexible, allowing people following it to substitute items they may not like for those they do. This flexibility means you can better blend it with other diets, such as the Mediterranean diet.

“The DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet have been around for a long time,” Hemmes said. “People have seen success with their blood pressure when they are lowering their sodium, eating more fresh foods versus processed foods and adding in healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and seeds or avocados.”

Drawbacks of the DASH diet

One of the biggest drawbacks of the eating plan is adopting the lifestyle change. “It involves a change in mindset and taste buds,” Hemmes said. “It may take time to adjust, but you may find eventually you prefer this way of eating.”

Getting started, tips on how to follow

If you’re interested in giving the DASH diet a try, talk to your health care provider or a dietitian to see if this diet is a good fit for you.

However, you don’t have to follow DASH perfectly to still draw from some of its benefits. Here are some ideas that can help you make some positive healthy changes in the meantime:

  • Avoid foods with trans-fat, or hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats, listed in food ingredients.
  • Try to avoid processed foods, such as cold cuts, hot dogs and “junk food.” Instead snack on raw vegetables and fruits, low-fat and fat-free yogurt, plain popcorn or unsalted pretzels or nuts.
  • Use lemon/lime juice, vinegar, spices and salt-free seasonings.
  • Choose whole fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.
  • Read food labels and choose low-sodium or no-salt-added options.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Reduce your alcohol intake.
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep each night.

Dash diet recipes

Get a taste for the DASH diet with some of the recipes from EatingWell sure to get your taste buds salivating:

Takeaway

DASH, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is an eating plan designed to lower the risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure, a precursor to heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol and/or kidney failure.

The eating plan focuses on low-sodium, whole and natural foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats.

DASH has many health benefits, but it may not be a good fit for everyone. Talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian to see if this diet is a good fit for you.

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