How to Follow the DASH Diet

Learn more about the DASH Diet, one of the healthiest diets, including which foods to eat and how to get started.


Pictured recipe: Chickpea & Quinoa Buddha Bowl

The DASH diet consistently ranks among the best diet plans for weight loss and healthy eating. Yet, many people aren't following this sensible style of eating.

The DASH diet was originally developed for people with hypertension (high blood pressure). However, anyone can follow it! The DASH diet is a healthy eating plan for adults and children alike that can reduce inflammation, cholesterol and blood pressure. It's also sustainable—most people can keep it up for the long term because it focuses on food groups and doesn't eliminate any foods.

Learn how to follow the DASH diet to lose weight, lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease.

What Is the DASH Diet?

The DASH diet isn't really a diet but rather a heart-healthy eating plan designed to help lower blood pressure. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and studies show that the DASH diet can lower blood pressure and LDL ("bad") cholesterol, two leading risk factors for heart disease. In one study comparing a typical American diet, a typical American diet with added fruits and vegetables, and the DASH diet, the people in the latter two groups had lower blood pressure after two weeks (with DASH dieters showing the most improvement), even though all three groups consumed 3,000 mg of sodium per day. The recommendation is to stay under 2,300 mg of sodium per day.

How to Follow the DASH Diet

The DASH diet is plant-focused, rich in fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and heart-healthy fats, and with some low-fat and nonfat dairy and lean meats like chicken and fish. Different serving sizes of different food groups are recommended based on calorie needs. The National Institute of Health has made it easy to figure out your individual calorie needs and serving sizes.

A typical 2,000-calorie-per-day diet includes the following quantities. (Note that one serving here is generally 1 cup of veggies, 1 oz. of grains or 1 oz. of protein; see more information below, and on the NIH website.)

table with food group and servings per day information

No matter your calorie needs for the day, the DASH diet recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.

How to Get Started with the DASH Diet

two bowls of pasta

Pictured recipe: Slow-Cooker Vegetarian Bolognese

Choose more whole foods

Processed foods are not part of the DASH diet and understandably so, as they're a significant source of sodium in American diets. Bread, cheese and deli meats are some of the biggest sodium culprits, along with frozen foods and food eaten outside the home. Become a nutrition facts label investigator and read the ingredients for packaged foods you buy. Anything greater than 20 percent of your daily value of sodium is considered high, while anything under 5 percent is considered low in sodium.

Choose fresh fruits and vegetables (or frozen with no added salt), whole grains, beans and legumes, fish, lean meats and nuts (with no added salt).

Bulk up on fruits and vegetables

All vegetables and fruits are allowed and encouraged on the DASH diet. It is recommended to include at least four or five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. This has been shown to lower risk of cardiovascular disease and hypertension. When in doubt, refer to MyPlate and make half your plate fruits and vegetables at every meal. The more variety, the better.

Try broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, squash, asparagus, peppers, mushrooms and cabbage. Aim for three to six servings of fruit each day based on your calorie needs. Choose whole fruit most of the time and consume dried fruit and fruit juice in moderation, since they are more calorie dense.

Examples of a serving of fruit include:

  • 1 medium fruit or 1/4 cup dried fruit
  • 1/2 cup fresh, frozen or canned fruit
  • 1/2 cup fruit juice

Examples of a serving of vegetables include:

  • 1 cup raw, leafy vegetables like spinach or kale
  • 1/2 cup cut-up raw or cooked vegetables like broccoli, carrots, squash or tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup vegetable juice

Swap refined grains for whole grains

Make half, if not all, of your grains whole. That's at least three servings of whole grains per day. Whole grains help lower cholesterol, keep blood sugar stable and fill you up with fiber, which aids weight loss and digestion. Whole grains are better for you than refined grains (like white flour) because the fiber is still part of the grain.

Examples of a serving of whole grains include:

  • 1 slice whole-grain bread
  • 1 oz. dry whole-grain cereal
  • 1/2 cup cooked brown rice, whole-wheat pasta or whole-grain cereal like oatmeal

Learn More: What Is a Complex Carbohydrate?

Choose more lean protein over red meat

Shrimp Scampi Zoodles

Pictured recipe: Shrimp Scampi Zoodles

Eat lean protein such as chicken, turkey and eggs. Skip processed meats, deli meats and red meat. Instead, cook fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna, which contain high doses of omega-3 fatty acids, shown to reduce inflammation and improve cholesterol. White fish and shellfish are also good lean protein sources, but are not high in omega-3s.

Eat low-fat dairy

You can eat dairy on the DASH diet, but keep it low-fat. Dairy delivers calcium and protein, but many dairy products, especially cheese, are high in sodium. Check the labels to stay under the recommended 2,300 mg of sodium for the day.

Examples of a serving of dairy include:

  • 1 cup low-fat milk or yogurt
  • 1.5 oz. low-fat cheese

Incorporate nuts, seeds and legumes

Almonds, walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds and all types of beans are part of the DASH diet and a heart-healthy lifestyle. Nuts and seeds provide healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, as well as protein, fiber and magnesium. Evidence shows that incorporating these into your diet has cardioprotective benefits. Add nuts to oatmeal, yogurt or salad. Snack on roasted chickpeas. Swap out meat for beans and legumes, which are a lean source of protein and packed with fiber. Bonus: Beans are also cheaper than meat.

Examples of a serving include:

  • 1/3 cup or 1.5 oz. nuts
  • 2 tablespoons nut butter
  • 2 tablespoons or 1/2 oz. seeds
  • 1/2 cup cooked legumes

Choose healthy fats and oils

Because the plan is promoting heart health, choosing healthy oils is important. Vegetable oils, such as canola, corn, olive and safflower, are the recommended fats and oils on the DASH diet. Get other healthy fats from nuts, seeds and avocado. Cook with olive oil, and use butter and coconut oil sparingly to limit saturated fats.

Remember to check labels on margarines and salad dressings and avoid any with trans fats.

Examples of a serving include:

  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons salad dressing

Limit sweets and added sugars

Added sugars are kept to a minimum on the DASH diet, so limit your intake of candy, soda and table sugar to five times or less per week. The DASH diet also limits unrefined sugars and alternative sugar sources, like agave nectar, honey and maple syrup.

Examples of a serving include:

  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon jelly or jam
  • 1 cup lemonade

Bottom Line

Overall, the DASH diet is easy to follow and an effective way to reduce blood pressure and your risk for heart disease. The DASH diet does not list specific foods to eat. Instead, it's a dietary pattern focused on servings of food groups. Following this dietary pattern is recommended if you have high blood pressure, but anyone can follow this diet for optimal heart health. Further optimize your heart health and reduce your blood pressure by managing stress, being physically active, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol intake.

Read More:

Healthy DASH Diet Recipes

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