The DASH diet is THE dietary pattern to follow if your goal is to reduce high blood pressure (AKA hypertension). It really is frightening how many humans suffer from high blood pressure these days. But by following the expert tips in this DASH diet for beginners article, you can bypass the guessing and rest assured you’re doing what’s best for your heart and arteries.
And don’t forget to snag the free DASH diet shopping list while you’re here.
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Want you learn about another top heart-healthy diet? Read Mediterranean Diet For Beginners (Get Started Today!)
Or to learn more about blood pressure, check out Hypertension Self-Care: Your Ultimate Plan For Lowering Blood Pressure at Home, Common Blood Pressure Questions and Answers (Nutrition Edition), or What Is The Difference Between Hypotension and Hypertension?
Table of Contents
What is the DASH Diet?
The “DASH” in the DASH diet is an acronym. It stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The DASH diet has been around since 1997 and is currently the #1 heart-healthy diet for 2023 according to U.S. News and World Report. It is a diet that boasts flexibility and balance.
Compared to the typical American diet, the DASH diet provides more protein, fiber, and minerals (specifically potassium, calcium, and magnesium) (1). The DASH diet is also lower in sodium than the typical American diet.
The original DASH diet trial tested three dietary patterns:
- A typical American diet
- A typical American diet plus more fruits and veggies
- The DASH diet eating plan
Each of the groups consumed around 3,000 mg of sodium per day, which is lower than the sodium in a typical American diet (3,400 mg/day) but higher than what our current 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend (2,300 mg/day).
For reference, 1 teaspoon of table salt equals 2,300 mg of sodium.
As you can guess, participants following the DASH eating plan had greater reductions in blood pressure, especially in those with high blood pressure. What’s more impressive is that reductions in blood pressure were noticed just 2 weeks into the study!
There have been more trials since then, all with similar results that have helped shape the current DASH diet recommendations today. FYI, there is more than one version of the DASH diet! I’ll explain this later.
Related article: What Is The Difference Between Hypotension and Hypertension?
Research on the DASH Diet
The body of evidence on a DASH diet pattern shows consistent evidence that diets higher in fruits, vegetables, and specific nutrients and lower in sweets and meats lead to lower blood pressure in the end. But other DASH trials add to the body of evidence further by testing other factors including tweaking the ratio of macronutrients or testing different types of these nutrients.
Let’s take a look at three significant studies and their results.
OmniHeart Trials (Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial for Heart Health)
The OmniHeart Trial compared 3 diets designed to reduce cardiovascular disease risk:
- A high carbohydrate diet
- A diet that partially replaced carbohydrates with monounsaturated fats
- A diet that partially replaced carbohydrates with protein (~half from plant sources).
According to the results, the two lower carbohydrate diets were more successful at improving risk factors of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and improving lipid levels.
It’s important to note that those participating in the study were healthy adults, free of diabetes or heart disease. Blood pressures for subjects ranged from 120 to 159 mm Hg for systolic (upper number) readings and 80 to 99 mm Hg for diastolic (lower number) readings.
The OmniCarb version of the DASH eating plan compared high- and low-glycemic index foods to test the effects on measures of insulin sensitivity, blood lipids, and other biomarkers of cardiometabolic health.
The results basically concluded that using the glycemic index is not recommended and neither low nor high-glycemic diets have a significant impact on insulin sensitivity. Instead, it may be better to focus on overall carbohydrate intake to improve insulin sensitivity and markers of heart health.
Subjects participating in this trial were heavier in weight with similar blood pressures to those in the OmniHeart trial above.
The DASH-Sodium trial compared diets with three different sodium levels and their effects on blood pressure. Participants were assigned to one of the following groups:
- High sodium diet of 3,300 mg sodium per day (which is similar to the current average U.S. daily sodium intake of about 3,400 mg)
- Medium sodium diet of 2,300 mg per day
- Low-sodium diet of 1,500 mg per day
The results showed that reducing sodium in any amount was beneficial to lowering blood pressure. However, the low-sodium diet group (1,500 mg/day) saw the greatest results.
Another important finding is that reducing sodium intake along with following a DASH diet is more beneficial than following a DASH diet alone or reducing sodium alone.
Current DASH Diet Recommendations
As I mentioned above, there are different versions of the DASH diet. Two to be exact:
- The Standard DASH diet- allows up to 2,300 mg of sodium per day
- The Low Sodium DASH diet- allows up to 1,500 mg of sodium per day
These recommendations are based on all research to date on the DASH diet and how it has proven to impact blood pressure, lipid levels, and metabolic factors related to the development of chronic disease.
The American Heart Association encourages those with heart disease or high blood pressure to follow the lower sodium DASH diet by limiting sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day.
Health Benefits of the DASH Diet
The health benefits of the DASH diet go beyond just lowering blood pressure.
It is also the perfect diet to follow if your aim is to:
- lose weight (in conjunction with behavioral counseling and physical activity)
- improve asthma
- improve lipid (cholesterol) levels
- decrease your risk of diabetes or improve insulin resistance
- lower your risk of developing certain types of cancer
Yes! The DASH diet is also suitable for those with diabetes. Since nearly 2 out of 3 individuals with diabetes have high blood pressure, it makes perfect sense to follow this type of dietary pattern.
One study looking at individuals with diabetes tested a group following the DASH diet plus 15-20 minutes of walking per day and compared it with a second group that was following an American Diabetic Association-style diet and continuing their normal daily activities.
According to the results, the DASH diet plus walking group had more success with lowering blood pressure. This group also had lower fasting plasma glucose, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol than the diabetic diet group. Pretty cool, right?
Additionally, for those who have suffered a heart attack, the DASH diet can significantly decrease your chances of death from all causes and from cardiovascular disease.
So, the DASH diet is an excellent option for those with OR without heart disease AND for those trying to manage both heart disease and diabetes. Ready to start the DASH diet for beginners?
What Does The DASH Diet Consist Of?
Okay, okay, here’s the nitty-gritty of how you can get similar results to those in the DASH diet trials. Focus your everyday meal planning around balancing the following foods into your diet so you can have the same success!
The daily serving suggestions for the following food groups are based on a 2,000-calorie meal plan. Your results will be reliant on using proper serving sizes.
For information on serving sizes visit the FDA website.
Fruits and Vegetables
Anything goes in these two groups. All fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other components that benefit health while being low in calories, fat, and sodium.
Aim for 4-5 servings per day of fruits and another 4-5 servings per day of vegetables.
Here are some examples of one fruit or vegetable serving:
- 1/2 cup dried fruit
- 1/2 large banana
- one medium-sized whole fruit (can fit in the palm of your hand)
- 1 cup diced fruit.
Choosing whole grains that are minimally processed allows your body to utilize more heart-benefiting fiber and nutrients versus more refined grains which have been stripped of nutrients.
Aim for 6-8 servings of grains per day, making sure to consume at least 3-4 of those servings from whole grain sources.
Here are some examples of one-grain servings:
- one slice of bread
- one small tortilla
- 1 ounce of uncooked pasta or rice OR 1/2 cup cooked pasta or rice
- 3 cups popped popcorn
Fat-Free and Low-Fat Dairy
Allowing dairy products provides calcium and other nutrients however it is the saturated fat that we want to limit. This is why choosing lower-fat and fat-free dairy should be a priority over full-fat varieties.
Aim for three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy each day.
Here are some examples of one serving of dairy:
- 1 cup of milk
- 1 cup of yogurt
- 1 ounce of cheese
- 1/2 cup of cottage cheese or ricotta cheese
This is a large category of foods that includes seafood, fish, poultry, beef, nuts, and seeds.
Protein is allowed in a moderate amount in the DASH Diet.
Aim for about five and a half ounces (5 1/2 ounces) of protein per day. This will likely seem very small for most people.
For fish, try to choose oily fish like salmon, herring, sardines, or mackerel at least twice per week. Keep poultry skinless and only eat lean cuts of beef like the round or loin.
For reference, 3 ounces of protein is about the size of a deck of cards. And 4 ounces of raw meat will reduce to about 3 ounces after cooking.
Here are some examples of one-ounce (each) protein servings:
- 1 ounce each of cooked seafood, meat, or poultry
- 1 ounce of nuts (preferably unsalted)
- one egg or two egg whites
- 1/4 cup cooked beans, peas, or legumes
- 1/4 cup or 2 ounces of tofu
Fats and oils are allowed in small amounts in a DASH eating plan. However, you will want to choose the right kinds of fats and oils.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats provide more benefits to heart health than unhealthier saturated and trans fats.
Aim for 2-3 servings per day of healthy fats and oils.
Here are some examples of one serving of healthy fats:
- 1 teaspoon of soft margarine
- 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil (canola, olive, corn, safflower)
- 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons light salad dressing
Now that you know which foods to eat, let’s talk about which foods to limit or avoid.
What Foods Are Not Allowed on the DASH Diet?
The DASH diet pays special attention to limiting sodium although it also recommends limiting or avoiding other foods that will contribute to high blood pressure. These are foods that are high in saturated fat and sugars.
The main types of foods you want to limit include:
- Fatty meats (including red meat)
- Full-fat dairy products (including whole milk, whole milk cheeses, ice cream, etc.)
- Tropical oils (including coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils)
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
- Other sweets
Continuing to consume a diet high in these foods can lead to inflammation, weight gain, metabolic disorders, and chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, severe depression, and even cancer.
Can You Lose Weight on a DASH Diet?
While the DASH diet is not designed as a weight loss diet, it is possible that weight loss may occur. This is largely due to the higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains which are high in fiber and lower in calories.
Additionally, the foods included in the DASH Diet have many other phytonutrients that promote metabolic health.
Weight loss is also possible on a DASH diet because it focuses on appropriate portion sizes. This alone may help you eat fewer calories per day which can result in weight loss if continued long-term.
If a physical activity component is added to a DASH diet lifestyle, this can create an even higher potential for weight loss and improve metabolic health.
How To Follow the DASH Diet
Modifying eating habits can be challenging, especially when there seems to be SO much to change. Take a deep breath. Give yourself some grace. Remember that even small changes can make a big difference over time.
Things as simple as getting a fruit or vegetable at each meal or preparing more meals from home can lead to better health outcomes. Here are a few tips and resources to start your DASH diet for beginners.
Expert Tips for Getting Started
Here are some key tips and things to remember for beginning the DASH diet.
- Focus on fruits and veggies: Design meals around fruits and vegetables. They are high in nutrients and add color, flavor, and variety to any meal.
- Think WHOLE grain: Swap out processed grains (white bread, regular pasta, and sugary cereals), for whole grains. Try quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat bread, or oatmeal.
- Choose lean proteins: Fatty fish like salmon and tuna are healthy sources of omega-3 fatty acids. When choosing poultry, do not eat the skin which is a source of saturated fat and cholesterol. You may eat lean cuts of beef like the sirloin, but only on occasion.
- Include dairy: Choose non-fat or low-fat dairy products like milk or yogurt. Those with lactose intolerance can try enriched dairy alternatives.
- Incorporate beans and nuts: Try adding in more beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Beans can be served as a side dish or included in recipes, such as in these delicious bulgar-black bean burgers from the Whole Grains Council.
- Go slow with fiber: To avoid unpleasant GI symptoms like gas and bloating, add more fruits, veggies, and whole grains gradually. Choose 1-2 new high-fiber foods to try each week.
- Experiment with herbs and spices: Use herbs and spices to make meals tasty and low-sodium. Stay away from seasoning “salts” and choose garlic powder, onion powder, Mrs. DASH, etc. instead.
- Watch what you drink: Cut back on how many sugar-sweetened beverages you drink. Try drinking more water or unsweetened beverages.
- Low sodium for all: A low sodium diet benefits EVERYONE, not just individuals with high blood pressure. Plus, it took some of us years to build up our salty preference for foods. I promise you, your taste buds will adapt to eating a lower-sodium diet as well.
DASH Diet Food List PDF
Any DASH diet for beginners requires a clear list of foods to purchase while grocery shopping. This list will make things easier and take the guesswork out of shopping. Be sure to still read food labels for low-fat and low-sodium food items.
If you’d like your free DASH diet food list PDF, simply subscribe to my email list and it will be sent straight to your inbox!
DASH Diet Recipes To Get You Started
Any recipes that focus on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins (including plant-based proteins) and are also lower in sodium and saturated fat are a great place to start. Here are a few easy recipes that follow the principles of the DASH diet.
For a handy guide to heart-healthy recipe substitutions, check out “5 Healthy Recipe Substitutions [Plus Free PDF]“.
Other DASH Diet Resources
Here are some of my very favorite DASH diet resources that this registered dietitian recommends to patients. There are podcasts, books, websites, and more.
True Health Initiative Podcast (Season 1, Episode 6)– In this approximately 45-minute episode the hosts speak with Dr. Frank Sacks and Dr. Larry Appel, who just so happen to be two of the originators of the DASH diet back in the 1990’s. How cool is that!? They discuss their findings, what foods are predominant in a DASH diet, and newer DASH studies including the OmniHeart trial.
The Everyday DASH Diet Cookbook (affiliate*)– This cookbook is written by a registered dietitian and New York Times Best-Selling author. It includes over 150 delicious recipes to help with weight loss, blood pressure management, and diabetes.
Another awesome feature is that you can go to the author’s website to sample some of the recipes in her books before buying.
DASH Diet Cookbook for Beginners (affiliate*)– Another cookbook by a registered dietitian and integrative and functional nutrition specialist. This is a no-fuss cookbook for beginners that is clear and concise. Simple breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and snack recipes are provided along with a brief intro to the DASH diet.
DASH DIET Crock Pot Cookbook for Beginners (affiliate*)– This cookbook is amazing! If you have a crock pot, you NEED this cookbook. The recipes are easy enough for beginners but delicious enough for anyone wanting to eat healthier without sacrificing flavor.
With 1,500 days of recipes and consistent 5-star ratings, this one is 100% worth it.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s DASH Eating Plan– This health organization has information on the DASH diet that includes a helpful infographic that makes it super simple to understand which foods you can eat and which you should limit.
Sodium and Health: Old Myths and a Controversy Based on Denial– This is an excellent article, maybe not for beginners but you can at least skip to the section that talks about sodium myths. It goes over some very common myths I hear daily from patients.
This article will help set the record straight on questions like whether or not sea salt is healthier than table salt and whether or not only people with high blood pressure need to follow a low-sodium diet. Hint: We ALL benefit from lowering sodium intake.
Did you enjoy reading about how to follow a DASH diet for beginners? My hope is that I left you feeling empowered and excited to get started.
As you may notice, the DASH diet is a whole-food, plant-forward (but not vegan) diet that is low in sodium, trans fats, and saturated fats, and rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, fiber, and protein.
The tools provided will help you every step of the way. From knowing what the DASH diet is all about, to which foods you should eat and which to limit, to what foods to purchase, recipes to try, and additional resources. Everything is here in one place for you to refer back to when needed.
Don’t forget to print off the DASH diet shopping list if you haven’t already.
In time, you’ll no longer be a beginner. You’ll be living with less stress, more energy, and of course…lower blood pressure!
Kiran Campbell is a registered dietitian and entrepreneur with 13 years of experience. She has a degree in psychology as well as dietetics. She is also a proud member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ and its Cardiovascular Health and Well-being Dietetics Practice Group among others. Kiran proudly presents and promotes the most up-to-date, science-based nutrition information on all things heart-related. She aims to serve not only individuals with heart disease, but also those wanting to protect against it. Learn more about Kiran by visiting her About Page.