Nutrition / Popular Diets

Dash Diet 101: What to Eat for the Heart-Healthy Benefits

Avoiding salt and unhealthy fats is the basis of this hypertension-preventing diet.

If the DASH diet sounds new to you, you’re not alone. Although professionals have been singing its praises for years, it’s only been on the public’s radar for the past year or two. Ranked number one on the most recent Best Overall Diets list (tied with the Mediterranean diet), DASH is touted for its abilities to combat hypertension (high blood pressure) and control diabetes, as well as its nutritional completeness. Added bonus: You don’t need to track anything while on it. With the help of a registered dietitian, we unpack what the DASH diet is and why it has gained such acclaim.

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What is it?

The DASH diet—which stands for “dietary approaches to stop hypertension”—was created to do exactly that: prevent or manage high blood pressure. While its priority isn’t to aid in dropping pounds or melting fat, weight loss is a common side effect of the regimen. This is because, unlike many fad diets and cleanses, it’s manageable for long periods of time. You can sustain it with ease, thanks to its relaxed approach (no tracking points here). “Overall the diet is lower in fat and higher in potassium and phytonutrients,” says Rahaf Al Bochi, RD, LD, media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and owner of Olive Tree Nutrition. “When combined with a low sodium intake, around 1500 milligrams daily, the DASH diet can help lower blood pressure even more.”

What do I eat on the diet?

The diet doesn’t center on weight loss, but when coupled with exercise, its list of recommended healthy foods can still help you lose weight. So, what are the powerhouse foods that not only lower blood pressure but also promote an overall healthy diet? Fruits, vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy, whole grains, meat, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils. In short: foods that are filled with nutrients and not processed. “These foods provide more fiber, potassium, calcium, and magnesium than the average American diet,” Al Bochi says. “These three minerals help regulate blood pressure, and potassium may blunt the effects of sodium on blood pressure.”

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, here’s the typical daily breakdown, with a goal of 2,000 calories.

Grains: six to eight servings
Meat, poultry, and fish: six servings (or fewer)
Vegetables: four to five servings
Fruit: four to five servings
Low-fat or fat-free dairy products: two to three servings
Fats and oils: two to three servings
Sodium: 2,300 mg (drop to 1,500 mg if needed)

What foods should I avoid?

The DASH diet discourages sweets, salt, and red meat while also limiting fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils (such as coconut and palm)—essentially, foods high in fat. “Limiting these foods helps lower saturated fat, trans fats, cholesterol, and added sugars in the diet,” Al Bochi says.

Though sodium isn’t eliminated entirely, it is limited to 2,300 milligrams a day. For perspective, the average daily sodium intake of Americans is 3,400 milligrams,which is more of an upper limit than a recommended amount. In fact, since the rise in popularity of the DASH diet, the FDA recommends we consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.

What are the health benefits?

“The diet was mainly developed to help people prevent or manage hypertension,” Al Bochi says. “However, the DASH diet is a guide to healthy eating for everyone. It provides nutrients for overall health. The DASH diet may also help reduce risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney stones, and type 2 diabetes.” She also notes that the diet is consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, making it a great choice no matter what.

The DASH diet is an adaptable, low-stress, and easy-to-follow diet packed with produce and low on salt and saturated fat. It can help you manage high blood pressure and lose weight, which we consider a win-win. With that in mind, it’s no wonder it has been ranked number one for two consecutive years.

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