High blood pressure is one of the biggest health challenges we face today. The DASH diet offers a nutritional approach to treating hypertension with foods that help lower blood pressure and support heart health. If you’re concerned about hypertension and are looking for ways to reduce blood pressure, here is everything you need to know about following the DASH diet and heart-healthy eating.
The DASH Diet for Hypertension
The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is a way of eating that’s heart healthy and is designed to help prevent or treat hypertension. When following the DASH eating plan, you enjoy foods that are low in sodium, as you might expect, but also foods that are rich in vital nutrients that help control blood pressure levels, like calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
The DASH diet also eliminates known culprits of heart disease, inflammation, and high blood pressure. These include foods that are high in saturated fat, added sugars, and many types of processed foods.
The DASH diet isn’t another fad dietary lifestyle. You can lose weight on the DASH diet, but that isn’t the overall goal, although weight loss can help lower blood pressure in some people. The DASH diet reduces your intake of foods that can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. The DASH eating plan is more about making permanent dietary and lifestyle changes than it is providing a short-term solution to high blood pressure.
It’s estimated that nearly half of the adults in the United States have elevated blood pressure or are taking medication for high blood pressure. It’s a serious health issue that we’re facing as a society, and in many cases, it’s the typical American diet that’s to blame. The problem with elevated blood pressure is that it’s rarely a stand-alone health issue, at least not for long.
Uncontrolled hypertension increases your risk of heart attack or stroke, heart failure, metabolic syndrome, reduced kidney function, aneurysm, poor vision, memory issues, and dementia. The DASH diet is one of the best lifelong dietary approaches to treating high blood pressure and preventing the potentially devastating health consequences it brings.
How Diet Affects High Blood Pressure
Most health professionals will tell you that controlling high blood pressure requires a multifaceted approach. In some cases, medication may be prescribed, but even that usually comes with a recommendation to exercise, possibly lose weight, and consider dietary approaches to stop hypertension.
The typical American diet is laden with sodium, saturated fat, fatty meats, and processed or canned foods that contain hidden sugars, salt, and preservatives. The issue is that none of these are good for heart health, and one way the effects of the typical diet are manifesting themselves is through an increase in heart disease and high blood pressure.
Research and trustworthy health information tell us that what we eat directly affects our health and the likelihood that we’ll develop heart disease. High blood pressure is often one of the first signs that diet and lifestyle factors have gone unchecked. Some people are naturally predisposed to develop hypertension. Sometimes it’s an acute case brought on by stress or medication, but more often, hypertension is a condition that develops slowly over the years, often with very few, if any, symptoms.
Sodium is often blamed as the main culprit in the development of high blood pressure. Everyone is different, and some people are more sensitive to the effects of a high sodium diet. Our bodies need a certain amount of sodium to carry out basic functions, but a high sodium intake can damage blood vessels and be the precursor to atherosclerosis, which is one of the main causes of severe heart disease.
A diet that’s too high in saturated fats also puts stress on the blood vessels, damaging them, and reducing their capacity to do their job. Of course, other lifestyle factors come into play, but making a commitment to yourself to choose foods that are heart healthy is one of the most important steps you can take toward controlling hypertension.
Foods to Lower Blood Pressure with the DASH Diet
So now, we get to the heart of the question we know you’re asking. What can you eat on the DASH eating plan? At first glance, the DASH diet can seem a bit restrictive, but once you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that isn’t the case.
The DASH diet does eliminate a lot of foods that are common in today’s diets and does require that you really examine food labels on any packaged or processed foods that you eat. For the most part, processed foods are off the table (literally) with the DASH diet, although some prepackaged foods are ok.
Mostly what you’re going to find is an abundance of choices from the healthiest food groups. Whole grains, vegetables of all types, fruits, lean meats, low-fat dairy foods, and plant-based protein sources are all approved for reducing blood pressure the DASH way.
The DASH diet eliminates saturated fat and replaces it with healthy fats, like those found in olive oil, salmon, or avocado. The DASH eating plan isn’t necessarily a weight loss diet, but many people do find that they lose a little weight due to developing healthy eating habits and find that they eat fewer calories.
The Rules of DASH
You’re going to stick to three main rules when following the DASH eating plan for hypertension. The first is that foods should be low in sodium. The dietary guidelines for sodium consumption are to limit your daily sodium intake to no more than 2,300 mg per day. This equals about a teaspoon of table salt.
Your doctor may prescribe a low sodium version of the DASH diet, which is aimed at further lowering sodium to 1,500 mg per day. If this is what your health care provider has suggested you do to reduce blood pressure, it’s crucial to keep a detailed account of all sodium you consume.
The second rule is to include foods that are rich in potassium, magnesium, and calcium. These nutrients help in their own ways to reduce blood pressure. Finally, the third rule is to cut out saturated fats. These types of fats aren’t good for your health and certainly not for controlling blood pressure.
So, with all that said, here’s a breakdown of foods to enjoy when following a DASh eating plan.
Whole grains: this includes unrefined grains that offer fiber and are good for lowering blood pressure, like brown cooking rice, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, or unsweetened cereal and oatmeal.
Vegetables: This includes practically every type of vegetable you can think of, including potatoes, which seem to be a nemesis on other diets. Potatoes are high in potassium, so you don’t have to shy away from them as long as you don’t load them down with salt.
Fruits: Fresh and frozen fruits should also be enjoyed on the DASH diet. They’re a great option for satisfying a sweet tooth when you’re restricting other types of added or processed sugars.
Fat-free or low-fat dairy products: You have to watch out for the sodium level of some cheeses but feel free to enjoy low-fat dairy products like skim milk and low-fat yogurt.
Lean meats: Chicken, poultry, fish, and seafood are all good choices for the DASH diet. Red meat is off the list because it can be too high in saturated fats, so you want to avoid all red meat, even if it “seems” lean.
Nuts, seeds, and legumes: These are all allowed on the DASH diet, as long as you choose unsalted versions. With beans, finding time to prepare dried beans can be challenging. You can use canned foods like kidney beans but opt for low sodium varieties if they’re available. If not, always make sure to rinse them to wash away some of the excess sodium.
Fats and oils: Stick to omega-3s and unsaturated fats that are good for your heart. You can get away with small amounts of oils like vegetable oil or a light salad dressing as long as you’re mindful of serving sizes.
Sweets: The general rule is to steer clear of added sugars, but a small amount is allowed. Think along the lines of a bit of jam on your toast or a small, refreshing scoop of sorbet after dinner.
What you don’t see much of on the DASH balanced eating plan is a lot of processed or prepared foods. The reason for this is that if you look at the nutrition labels, you’ll find that many of them make it difficult to stick to the recommended daily sodium intake. Added sugars and saturated fat are also a problem. If you do reach for packaged food, make sure you look at the food labels and put it down if it’s non-compliant.
Recommended Servings on the DASH Diet
With the DASH eating plan, it goes beyond making a list of what you can and can’t have from the grocery store. It’s also about eating the optimal number of servings from each of the food groups. The reason for this is that the DASH eating plan is designed to treat and prevent high blood pressure, and certain nutrients are more effective at this than others.
For example, whole grains are a big part of the DASH diet. Whole grain products are packed with fiber, which is important if you want to improve blood pressure. You’re not really counting how many calories you consume, but you do want to try to get in the recommended servings per day or week and also not go over by too much.
Consider the suggested number of servings as a priority goal, but don’t beat yourself up if you fall short or go over. The main point is to reduce sodium, saturated fat, and sugar. Ask your doctor for guidance if you feel like you’ll have difficulty with the number of servings of each food group on the DASH diet.
DASH guidelines suggest the optimal number of servings to aim for. This list is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. If your suggested caloric intake is more or less than 2,000, you’ll want to adjust the number of servings accordingly.
Aim for 6-8 servings per day. A serving equals one slice of whole grain bread, a cup of dry cereal, or ½ cup of cooked cereal.
Aim for 4-5 servings of fresh, frozen, or canned (low sodium only) vegetables per day. An example of a serving size would be 1 cup of leafy, green raw vegetables, ½ cup of chopped raw vegetables, ½ cup cooked vegetables or ½ cup pure vegetable juice.
Aim for 4-5 servings of fruit per day. A serving size is a medium-sized piece of fresh fruit, like a medium apple or banana (great choice for its high potassium), or ½ cup of fresh, frozen, or canned (not packed in syrup) fruit.
Fat Free Dairy Products
The recommendation for low-fat or fat-free dairy products is 2-3 servings per day. A serving size of dairy is 1 cup of fat-free milk or yogurt or 1.5 ounces of cheese.
Lean Meats, Poultry, and Fish
Aim for six servings per day. Keep in mind that for the purposes of the DASH diet, a serving of lean meats, poultry, and fish is described as one ounce. The average portion size that you’d find on a dinner plate is 3-4 ounces, so two servings of this size would be sufficient.
Nuts, Seeds, and Legumes
Aim for 4-5 savings per week. A serving would be about two tablespoons of unsalted peanut butter, 2 tablespoons of seeds, ⅓ cup of unsalted nuts, or ½ cup of cooked legumes/beans.
Fats and Oils
Aim for 2-3 servings per day, with a serving being equal to 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil or margarine or 2 tablespoons of salad dressing.
Sweets and Sugars
Aim to keep the number of servings to five or less per week. One serving would equal 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 tablespoon of jam, or ½ cup of sweetened lemon ice.
Tips for Following the DASH Diet
Now that we’ve covered the basics of one of the best dietary approaches to stop hypertension let’s talk about some tips and strategies that make the DASH diet easier to stick to.
- Find practical ways to reduce your salt intake, like substituting sodium free herbs and spices for the salt shaker
- Look for all the ways you add salt to your diet without even thinking about it, like adding salt to the water when cooking pasta
- Measure fats and oils, at least in the beginning – we often underestimate how much of these types of foods we consume
- Find satisfying substitutions for favorite snack foods, Unsalted nuts, dried fruits like banana chips, and crunchy raw vegetables satisfy the craving for crunch
- A good strategy is to begin by adding a full serving size of vegetables to each and every meal
- Freeze grapes or make a sorbet from fresh melon for a delicious sweet treat
- Plan ahead when eating out, and don’t hesitate to speak up for yourself and your health if a suggested restaurant has nothing to offer you
- Prepare for events like office parties, family gatherings, and holidays. Make your own food or contribute a DASH friendly dish or two for everyone to enjoy
- Become familiar with food labels, and know exactly where to look for the sodium content
- Also, learn to pay attention to serving sizes on food labels – they’re often much smaller than you think
- If you want to lose weight, discuss the correct amount of servings with your healthcare provider
- Keep your activity level in mind and add more servings if you increase physical activity
- Don’t worry about counting calories unless your healthcare provider suggests that you do
- Don’t take an all-or-nothing approach. Your body does need some sodium, and reducing salt intake too long can be equally bad for your health
- If you drink, reduce your alcohol intake or eliminate it completely from your diet
- Take advantage of aromatic, flavorful fruits and vegetables to replace table salt in your meals ( a little onion or garlic can go a long way!)
- Make your plate pretty. With all the colors of fruits and vegetables, there’s no reason to have a dull, drab plate of food!
- If you have other health issues, discuss the DASH diet with your healthcare provider before starting. Some people have to limit potassium of calcium for health reasons
DASH Diet Meal Delivery
One very effective tip for making life with DASH even easier is to consider subscribing to a DASH diet meal delivery service. These services deliver meals right to your door, and they’re 100% DASH compliant.
We’ve tested and tried so many meal delivery services, but our favorites for DASH are Modidy Health, Mom’s Meals, and Splendid Spoon. You can read our complete DASH Diet Meal Delivery review and see what we liked (or didn’t like) about each.
The DASH Diet and a Heart Healthy Eating Style
Hypertension is one of the major risk factors for more serious cardiac disease. It’s also one of the most common health concerns we face today. Fortunately, there are things that can be done to treat, control, and in some cases, reverse hypertension. One of these things is the DASH diet.
The DASH diet offers a nutritional guideline for eating to improve high blood pressure. It also comes with a long list of benefits, including being healthier overall. High blood pressure and all the dangers that come with it don’t have to be a way of life. Follow DASH and regain control over your health.