Dash Diet – Meal Plan, Benefits and Guidelines
Ranked #1 for “Best Diets for Healthy Eating”, according to U.S. News World Report Rankings, is the celebrated DASH Diet (1).
This health-promoting, disease-preventing diet’s full name is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommend the DASH diet for high blood pressure. Other health benefits include lowering inflammatory markers, preventing diabetes, and lowering the risk of developing cancer (2).
Blood pressure is a measure of how much force your blood exerts on your blood vessels. When you get a blood pressure reading, it will be given in two numbers separated by a slash.
For example, 120/80 mm Hg. The top number is known as systolic blood pressure.
It is a measure of how much force your blood pushes against your arteries when the heart beats. The bottom number, known as diastolic blood pressure, is how much force your blood pushes against your arteries while the heart is resting. While both numbers are important, most health care professionals pay more attention to the top number.
The American Heart Association has categorized blood pressures based on the following scores:
- Normal is less than 120/less than 80
- Elevated blood pressure is 120-129/less than 80
- High Blood Pressure Stage 1 is 130-139/80-89
- High Blood Pressure Stage 2 is 140 or higher/90 or higher
- Hypertensive crisis (call your doctor immediately! This is considered a medical emergency!) is higher than 180/higher than 120 (3)
People who have higher blood pressures are more likely to have a heart attack, develop heart disease, develop kidney problems, and/or have a stroke.
What Is the Dash Diet?
The DASH diet is a healthy eating plan to help combat hypertension. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, effects nearly one billion people worldwide (4). Diets high in salt are thought to cause high blood pressure. Doctors typically recommend a diet low in sodium (salt) if you have high blood pressure.
The DASH diet recommends 2,300 mg of sodium a day or less, which is about a teaspoon. This eating plan also recommends lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat or fat free dairy, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils.
These lowering blood pressure foods contain key nutrients like potassium, magnesium, and calcium that have been shown to improve blood pressure (2).
The DASH diet recommends avoiding fatty meats, full-fat dairy, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sweets due to their sodium levels.
Benefits Of the DASH Diet
Lowers Blood Pressure
The most recognized health benefit of the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet is its ability to lower blood pressure.
One study found that subjects who followed the DASH diet saw their systolic blood pressure drop by 5 points, on average, and their diastolic blood pressure drop by 3 points, on average (5).
These benefits were seen within weeks of adopting the DASH diet.
Another study took subjects who had high blood pressure. All subjects had systolic blood pressures over 140 and diastolic blood pressures over 90. After just 3 weeks on the DASH diet, their systolic blood pressure dropped by 11 points and their diastolic blood pressure dropped by 7 points (6)!
Reduces Heart Disease Risk
The DASH diet also protects against cardiovascular diseases. A review found that followers of the DASH diet decrease their risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 20%, coronary heart failure by 21%, stroke by 19%, and heart failure by 29% (7).
Decreases Cancer Risk
Followers of the DASH diet eating plan also appear to have lower risk of developing colorectal cancer (8).
Men who followed the DASH diet had a 33% risk reduction of developing colorectal cancer.
Lowers Diabetes Risk
People who follow the DASH diet eating plan have better metabolic health. Key markers of metabolic health, including blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, C-reactive protein, and high-density lipoproteins are at healthier levels when people follow a DASH diet (2).
Even though it is called Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, the DASH diet is a great diet for those at risk for diabetes. Following the DASH diet can lower your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 20% (9).
Not only can it prevent diabetes, but the American Diabetes Association recommends the DASH diet for diabetics.
One study found that diabetics who followed the DASH diet saw their A1C, a measure of average blood sugar over 3 months, drop by 1.7%, and their fasting blood sugar decrease by 29% .
What Can You Eat on the Dash Diet?
The DASH diet eating plan is full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean meat. An easy way to get started with this eating plan is to take your plate and make half vegetables, a quarter whole grains, and a quarter lean meat or plant-based protein. Make it a goal to “eat the rainbow” of different fruits and vegetables. You may also include a side of low-fat dairy foods and fruits.
For a 2,000-calorie diet, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommend the following servings for different food groups:
Vegetables: 4-5 Servings a Day (10)
A serving of vegetables includes:
- 1 cup raw, leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, arugula, collard greens, turnip greens, spring mix, salad greens, or romaine lettuce
- ½ cup raw or cooked vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, sweet peppers, onions, mushrooms, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, zucchini, squash, sugar snap peas, cauliflower, eggplant, beets, asparagus, parsnips, green peas, and green beans.
Vegetables are a rich source of potassium, magnesium, and fiber (2).
Fruits: 4-5 Servings a Day (10)
A serving of fruits includes:
- 1 medium fruit like a banana, apple, orange, or pear
- ¼ a cup dried fruit like raisins, prunes, figs, or cranberries. Make sure there is no sugar added by checking the ingredients
- ½ a cup fresh, frozen, or canned fruit (look for fruit canned in its own juices with no added sugars) like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, mangoes, pineapples, and grapes
Fruit, like vegetables, are full of potassium, magnesium, and fiber (2). Berries are packed full of antioxidants to promote health.
Grains (Aim for whole grains!): 6-8 servings a day (10)
A serving includes:
- 1 slice of bread
- 1 ounce of dry cereal like shredded wheat (hold the frosting!)
- ½ a cup cooked brown rice, quinoa, whole grain or plant-based pasta, ½ a cup cooked plain oatmeal or steel-cut oats, 6 Triscuits or whole-grain crackers, 3 cups plain popcorn, or ½ a cup corn
Whole grains are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Refined grains have been processed, resulting in most of the nutrients being stripped away (11).
Lean meats, poultry, and fish (protein): 6 or fewer servings a day (10)
A serving of protein includes:
- 1 ounce of cooked meat, poultry (chicken, turkey), or fish like salmon, tuna, halibut, shrimp or tilapia
If you are unsure what an ounce looks like, you can purchase a food scale. You can find them at drug stores or major stores like Walmart, Target, and Bed Bath and Beyond or online. If you don’t have a food scale, 1 ounce of cooked meat is about the size of a matchbox. Three ounces of meat is about the size of a deck of cards.
Fat-free or Low-Fat Dairy Products: 2-3 servings a Day (10)
A serving of fat-free or low-fat dairy products includes:
- 1 cup of fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt
- 1 ½ ounce of reduced-fat cheese
Low-fat dairy products are a great source of calcium and protein.
Nuts, Seeds, and Legumes: 4-5 Servings a Week (10)
A serving includes:
- 1/3 a cup or 1 ½ an ounce of nuts like peanuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, or cashews
- 2 tablespoons of nut butter like peanut butter, almond butter, or cashew butter
- 2 tablespoons or ½ an ounce of seeds such as sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds
- ½ a cup cooked black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, fat-free refried beans, chickpeas, lentils, split peas, great northern beans, or navy beans
Fats and Oils: 2-3 Servings a Week (10)
A serving of fat and oils includes:
- 1 teaspoon soft margarine
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, olive oil, canola oil, safflower oil, or corn oil
- 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons of salad dressing like ranch or Caesar
Sweets and Added Sugars: 5 Servings or Less a Week (10)
A serving of sweets includes:
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon jelly or jam
- ½ a cup of sorbet or gelatin dessert
- 1 cup sweet tea, lemonade, coke, or other sweetened beverages
When you follow this eating plan, aim to eat 2,300 milligrams or less of salt each day. Remember this works out to be about a teaspoon. If you can eat 1,500 mg of salt, which is a little over ½ a teaspoon, your blood pressure will improve even more (10)!
There does not appear to be an added benefit for eating less than 1,500 mg of sodium each day. Most of the salt in our diet is already in the foods we eat. Foods with high sodium level include:
- Restaurant foods- these are loaded with sodium. I have seen entrees alone with over 3,000 mg of sodium!
- Frozen meals
- Cottage cheese
- Processed sandwich meat like pastrami, salami, ham, beef, and turkey
- Soy sauce
- Check the nutrition labels under sodium to see how much is lurking in your favorite foods.
What Can You Not Eat on the Dash Diet?
When following the DASH diet, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends an eating plan that avoids foods high in saturated fat to limit sodium intake.
Examples of these foods include fatty meats like bacon, sausages, fatty cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and poultry skin. Other foods high in saturated fat include butter, cream, full-fat dairy products, coconut milk, and fried foods.
Red meat, which includes beef and pork, is also discouraged on this eating plan.
Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, sweet tea, sports drinks, and coffee with added sugars and creamers. Limit sweets in general and especially sweets that have added fat (10).
Examples include foods like cakes, cookies, brownies, pies, pastries, hard candy, ice cream, and donuts.
1 Day Sample Dash Diet Plan
Here is a sample eating plan to help guide your DASH diet meal planning.
Apple Cinnamon Steel Cut Oats with 1 cup low fat or skim milk to drink
- 1 cup cooked steel-cut oats (about ½ a cup dry)
- 1 medium apple, chopped
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Cook the steel cut oats according to package directions. Add the chopped apple, peanut butter, and cinnamon.
- Enjoy right away with a glass of cool milk.
Makes 1 serving.
Nutrition Facts + Calories: 551, Protein 24 grams, Carbohydrates 64 grams, Fat 20 grams, Saturated Fat 3 grams, Sodium 323 milligrams
Power Salad with Healthy Homemade Salad Dressing, Plain Greek yogurt with berries
- 3 cups mixed greens: baby spinach, baby kale, spring mix, romaine lettuce, and/or arugula
- 1 cup cooked quinoa (about ½ a cup dry)
- 1 cup raw cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and/or colored peppers
- ½ a cup shredded carrot
- 3-ounce Salmon or tuna packet
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- ½ teaspoon rosemary
- ½ teaspoon sage
- ½ teaspoon thyme
- Cook the quinoa according to package directions. Mix all the ingredients of the salad together. Whisk the salad dressing ingredients together, then drizzle over the salad.
- Enjoy a cup of plain, nonfat Greek yogurt with 1 cup of berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and/or blackberries) mixed in. Fresh or frozen works great.
Makes 1 serving.
Nutrition Facts + Calories: 737, Protein 58 grams, Carbohydrates 65 grams, Fat 23 grams, Saturated Fat 4 grams, Sodium 250 grams
Dinner: Chicken Stir-Fry with Brown Rice
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- Frozen stir-fry vegetables, family size package
- 1 pound cooked chicken breasts, diced into bite-size pieces
- ¼ a cup low sodium soy sauce
- ¾ a cup dry brown rice (makes about 2 ¼ cups brown rice)
Cook the rice according to package directions.
- Spray a stir-fry pan or Wok with nonstick cooking spray, then place over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and cook for about 1 minute, or until the garlic is starting to smoke.
- Add the stir-fry vegetables, cooked chicken, and soy sauce. Cook until the vegetables are no longer frozen.
- Serve 1 cup of vegetables and 3 ounces of chicken over a 1 cup bed of brown rice. For dessert, enjoy some fresh fruit such as a banana or orange.
This recipe makes about 4 servings.
Nutrition Facts + Calories: 685, Protein 38 grams, Carbohydrates, 81 grams, Fat 20 grams, Saturated Fat 4 grams, Sodium 1242 milligrams
Frequently Asked Questions:
Will Dash Diet Help You Lose Weight?
Even though the purpose of the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension is to improve blood pressure, and not necessarily lose weight, many people who follow this diet do end up losing weight.
Foods on this diet, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meat, and low-fat dairy are very filling, but low in calories. In order to lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit, and the DASH diet can certainly help you achieve this.
A review that pooled the study results from 13 different articles about weight loss and the DASH diet found that when people followed the DASH diet, they lost on average 3 pounds compared to control groups (12).
This was over an 8-24-week time period, depending on the study. When the DASH diet was lower in calories, people lost even more weight.
Can You Eat Eggs on the Dash Diet?
Eggs are allowed on the DASH diet, but the yolk is very high in cholesterol.
For this reason, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends egg whites only. Two egg whites equal 1 ounce of meat (2).
- “U.S. News World Report Rankings, “Best Diets for Healthy Eating,” U.S. News World Report Rankings.” U.S. News World Report Rankings, 2020, https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-healthy-eating-diets.
- D. Webb. “The Celebrated DASH Diet.” Today’s Dietitian, 2017 November, https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/1117p46.shtml.
- “Understanding Blood Pressure Readings.” American Heart Association, American Heart Association, 30 November 2017, https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/understanding-blood-pressure-readings.
- A. Chockalingam. “Impact of World Hypertension Day.” The Canadian Journal of Cardiology,15 May 2007. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2650754/.
- T. J. Moore, W. M. Vollmer, J. L. Appel, F. M. Sacks, L. P. Svetkey, T. M. Vogt, P. R. Conlin, D. G. Simons-Morton, L. Carter-Edwards and D. W. Harsha. “Effect of Dietary Patterns on Ambulatory Blood Pressure.” Hypertension, 1 September 1999, https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/01.hyp.34.3.472.
- P. R. Conlin, D. Chow, E. R. Miller, L. P. Svetkey, P. H. Lin, D. W. Harsha, T. J. Moore, F. M. Sacks and L. J. Appel. “The Effect of Dietary Patterns on Blood Pressure Control in Hypertensive Patients: Results From the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Trial.” American Journal of Hypertension, September 2000, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10981543/.
- A. Salehi-Abargouei, Z. Maghsoudi, F. Shirani and L. Azadbakht. “Effects of Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)-style diet on fatal or nonfatal cardiovascular diseases–incidence: a systematic review and meta-analysis on observational prospective studies.” Nutrition, April 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23466047.
- E. Jones-McLean, J. Hu, L. Greene-Finestone and M. dr Groh. “A DASH dietary pattern and the risk of colorectal cancer in Canadian adults.” Health Promotion Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada, March 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4939457/.
- A. P. Campbell. “DASH Eating Plan: An Eating Pattern for Diabetes Management” Spectrum.DiabetesJournals.org, 2017, https://spectrum.diabetesjournals.org/content/diaspect/30/2/76.full.pdf.
- “DASH Eating Plan,” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/dash-eating-plan.
- D. Webb. “The Impact of Whole Grain on Health.” Today’s Dietitian, May 2013, https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/050113p44.shtml.
- S. Soltani, F. Shirani, M. J. Chitsazi and A. Salehi-Abargouei. “The effect of dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) diet on weight and body composition in adults: a systematic review and meta‐analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials.” Obesity Reviews, 15 March 2016, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/obr.12391.