What Is the DASH Diet?
Medically reviewed by Jamie Johnson, RDN
The DASH diet is a nutritional intervention for lowering blood pressure. "DASH" stands for "Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension."
The DASH diet generally emphasizes a high intake of fruits, vegetables, low-fat or nonfat dairy, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, and whole grains. It limits the consumption of red and processed meat, sweets, soda, and sodium (salt).
This article will explore the ins and outs of the DASH diet, including its health benefits and how it compares to the Mediterranean diet. A summary of specific foods to eat or avoid on the diet will also be provided.
Lowering Blood Pressure Through the DASH Diet
Scientific studies consistently support the DASH diet as an effective intervention for high blood pressure.
High blood pressure (hypertension) is a health condition that often causes no symptoms but can lead to serious complications like heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease.
The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association (ACC/AHA) guidelines categorize blood pressure in the following ways:
Normal: Systolic pressure (the first number) less than 120 and diastolic pressure (the second number) less than 80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg)
Elevated (prehypertension): Systolic pressure between 120 and 129 and diastolic pressure less than 80 mm Hg
Stage 1 hypertension: Systolic pressure between 130 and 139 or diastolic pressure between 80 and 89
Stage 2 hypertension: Systolic pressure at least 140 or diastolic pressure at least 90 mm Hg
The systolic pressure is the force on the arteries that each heartbeat generates. The diastolic pressure is the force felt against the artery walls when the heart rests between beats.
Besides lowering blood pressure, research suggests the DASH diet has other health benefits, including:
Lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, heart failure, and kidney disease
Reducing body weight
Decreasing the risk of developing gout
Improving sleep duration and mental health, especially depression and anxiety.
The widespread benefits of the DASH diet are attributed to its nutrient-dense components, including high amounts of fiber, magnesium, calcium, protein, and potassium.
The diet also emphasizes eating unsaturated fats. These healthy fats lower blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), a harmful cholesterol that causes fatty buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis).
Related:How Are High Blood Pressure and Atherosclerosis Linked?
DASH Diet Food List
The DASH diet is intended to be flexible and well-balanced. It does not emphasize special foods to eat. Instead, the diet focuses on eating a specific number of servings from various food groups.
The number of servings depends on how many calories you need to consume daily, with calories ranging from 1,600 to 3,200 per day for adults.
Recommended daily caloric intake depends on gender, age, weight, and activity level. Use a calorie calculator or speak with a healthcare provider if you need help determining how many calories to eat in a day.
For a 2,000-calorie diet per day, the DASH diet advises the following servings and foods:
Four to five servings of fruit per day
Four to five servings of vegetables per day
Six to eight servings of whole grains per day
Two or three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy per day
Six or fewer servings per day of meat, chicken, or fish
Two or three servings per day of heart-healthy fats and oils
The diet also encourages four or five servings of nuts, seeds, dry beans, peas, and five or fewer sweets per week.
Regarding salt intake, the DASH diet allows for 2,300 milligrams (mg) daily. This is equivalent to about 1 teaspoon of table salt.
Some people (under the guidance of a healthcare provider) opt for an even lower sodium goal of 1,500 mg. This lower salt limit goal can lower blood pressure even more.
Related:Eating Salt When You Have High Blood Pressure
DASH Diet Recommendations and Restrictions
The DASH diet encourages a high intake of certain food groups and a limited intake of others.
Here is a visual summary of what foods are encouraged vs. restricted in the DASH diet.
Vegetables and fruits (e.g., broccoli, potatoes, spinach, apples, oranges, and raisins)
Whole grains (e.g., oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, brown rice)
Low-fat or fat-free dairy (e.g., fat-free milk and low-fat yogurt)
Lean protein (e.g., skinless chicken, fish, and eggs)
Nuts, seeds, and legumes (e.g., almonds, peanuts, green beans, and chickpeas)
Healthy fats and oils (e.g., soft margarine, olive oil, and light salad dressing)
Low-fat sweets (e.g., fruit-flavored gelatin, maple syrup, sorbet, and hard candy)
Restrict or Avoid
High-salt foods (e.g., processed meats like bacon, frozen dinners, pizza, and canned soups)
Red meat (e.g., beef, pork, lamb veal)
Full-fat dairy (e.g., butter, heavy cream, whole milk)
Added sugars (e.g., soda, sweets)
DASH vs. Mediterranean Diet
The DASH and Mediterranean diet share some features. They both encourage the consumption of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and discourage the consumption of foods high in salt, added sugar, or saturated fats like red meat and processed foods.
Both diets also help protect against several chronic diseases, notably stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.
There are subtle differences, however, between the diets. These differences include:
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the nearly exclusive use of olive oil, whereas the DASH diet promotes the intake of olive oil, but not exclusively.
In the DASH diet, dairy products are allowed and should be either low-fat or nonfat choices. The traditional Mediterranean diet limits dairy consumption, but there are no restrictions on the type of dairy product.
The Mediterranean diet allows for moderate consumption of wine with meals. The DASH diet provides no specific guidance about alcohol intake.
The DASH and Mediterranean diets are both excellent, well-balanced ways of eating. To ensure the diet is appropriate for your care, talk with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian before starting one.
Related:Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: Similar But Different
Are There Any Risks on the DASH Diet?
The DASH diet is not recommended for individuals with decompensated cirrhosis (sudden loss of liver function).
The diet may also need to be modified to accommodate certain health condition. Here are key examples:
With a peanut allergy, avoid peanuts, perhaps replacing them with seeds.
With celiac disease, choose gluten-free foods, such as brown rice, corn, and tapioca, and avoid gluten-containing grains (e.g., wheat, barley, and rye).
With lactose intolerance, choose lactose-free products or take a lactase pill when eating lactose-containing food.
With type 2 diabetes, you would choose foods with a low glycemic index and plan out a low-carbohydrate version of the DASH diet with a dietitian.
Incidentally, the DASH diet contains many high-fiber foods, which can cause bloating. Slowly incorporate high-fiber foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) into your diet over several weeks to combat this uncomfortable symptom.
What's Not on the DASH Diet?
The DASH diet has no specific guidelines regarding alcohol. This is interesting because alcohol intake, especially heavy drinking, has been linked to high blood pressure. As such, your healthcare provider or dietitian will likely recommend limiting alcohol consumption.
The European Society of Hypertension and the European Society of Cardiology (ESH/ESC) guidelines recommend limiting daily alcohol consumption to two or fewer drinks for men and one or fewer drinks for women. (The terms for sex or gender from the source are used.)
If you are starting the DASH diet, follow a healthcare provider's recommendations regarding alcohol. Their guidance may differ based on your medical history.
Related:How Alcohol Affects Blood Pressure
"DASH" stands for "Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension." As its name suggests, the DASH diet is an effective strategy for helping lower blood pressure. It has other health benefits, too, like losing weight, if needed, and protecting your heart from disease.
The DASH diet focuses on eating a specific number of servings from different food groups. The diet is generally rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy, beans, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins like fish or chicken. It limits the intake of red and processed meat, soda, sweets, and salt.
The DASH and Mediterranean diet are both hearty-healthy eating patterns. However, unlike the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet does not promote alcohol intake. Also, while the DASH diet encourages consuming olive oil, it's not an exclusive component as it is with the Mediterranean diet.