What Is the DASH Diet? A Guide to the Scientific Plan for Lowering Blood Pressure

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, diet has been consistently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as a top diet overall, and that comes as no surprise.right up arrow Unlike fad diets that call for extreme calorie or food-group restrictions without scientific evidence that supports their efficacy, the DASH diet involves manageable dietary changes that are flexible and rooted in proven nutritional advice.

This has made the eating plan popular among doctors, dietitians, and other health professionals in the United States, where heart disease remains the No. 1 killer among men and women.right up arrow High blood pressure (hypertension) is a big contributing factor to heart disease and affects an estimated 50 percent of American adults. One in three of those people don’t know they have hypertension.right up arrow Heart disease is also the leading cause of death around the world.right up arrow The good news is that lifestyle changes, including the switch to a healthy diet, may help lower blood pressure in patients with resistant hypertension, which is blood pressure that remains elevated despite medication, research suggests.right up arrow

Whom Is the DASH Diet Good for Exactly, and What Variations Are There?

The DASH diet was developed specifically to help people lower high blood pressure and is promoted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), which is part of the National Institutes of Health.right up arrow Blood pressure readings higher than 130 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) for systolic blood pressure (the top number) and higher than 80 mmHg for diastolic (the bottom number) are considered high.right up arrow

The food options available on the DASH diet closely mirror the eating plan recommended in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate, with a focus on whole foods, such as fruit and veggies; fat-free or low-fat dairy; whole grains; and lean meats, fish, and poultry.right up arrow Meanwhile, the plan requires cutting back on, or preferably eliminating, processed foods, like sugary drinks and packaged snacks, and limiting red meat, which has been linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease.right up arrow

The DASH diet specifically meets the sodium requirements that can give people an edge over hypertension.right up arrow This means it’s a great diet for people who have high blood pressure or are looking to reduce their risk of heart disease, as well as those individuals who may be at risk of type 2 diabetes or are currently managing the condition.right up arrow

DASH Diet Types

The standard DASH diet This plan limits sodium consumption to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day.

The lower-sodium DASH diet This version calls for limiting sodium consumption to 1,500 mg per day.

How Does the DASH Diet Lower Blood Pressure?

The DASH diet works by limiting not only sodium but also saturated fat — both of which can be detrimental to heart health, says Kimberley Rose-Francis, RDN, CDCES, a dietitian and diabetes educator in Sebring, Florida. A diet that's heavy in salt can drive up blood pressure, which puts unnecessary strain on the heart muscle, Rose-Francis says. Saturated fat, on the other hand, can increase cholesterol levels. “Cholesterol has the potential of blocking or decreasing the flow of blood to the heart,” Rose-Francis says, adding that restricted blood flow can lead to heart attack and stroke.

The DASH diet also works by increasing foods that provide fiber, lean protein, and other nutrients thought to help lower blood pressure.right up arrow

People who want to lower their blood pressure should combine the diet with other healthy lifestyle approaches to manage hypertension, such as getting more exercise, losing weight, cutting back on alcohol consumption, and managing stress levels. Quitting smoking and getting plenty of sleep are also recommended and can improve your overall health.right up arrow