The DASH Diet for Beginners: Health Benefits, Rules and What to Eat

James Eaton

High blood pressure or hypertension can be detrimental to your heart health. According to the CDC, nearly half of US Americans have hypertension — that’s about 116 million people. On top of that, only one in four adults have their hypertension under control. Lifestyle changes, including increased exercise and a healthy diet, can lower your blood pressure and help prevent heart disease.    

The DASH diet is known for doing just that. DASH, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, limits your daily intake of sugars, saturated fats and sodium and focuses on heart-healthy foods such as fresh produce and lean proteins. Named the second best diet of 2023 by the US News and World Report following the Mediterranean diet, here is everything you need to know about this high-fiber and heart-healthy diet. 

What is the DASH diet?

DASH is a dietary plan designed to help control blood pressure. The diet is flexible and built for life-lasting, healthy and heart-friendly eating habits. By limiting sugary beverages, sweets, saturated fats and full-fat dairy, you can potentially lower your blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol. To boost heart health on the DASH diet you will eat foods that are high in potassium, fiber, calcium, magnesium and protein.

DASH diet health benefits

Fresh vegetables, salad, healthy foods and sport equipment

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In addition to eating better and taking care of yourself, here are more to try this diet. The DASH diet:   

May help prevent or treat high blood pressure

A study that looked at a typical American diet, an American diet with fruits and vegetables and the DASH diet found that those who followed DASH had lower blood pressure than the rest. Follow-ups from this trial found that participants not only had lower pressure but also lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.

Lower plasma sodium levels are associated with a decreased high blood pressure. Since the DASH diet restricts your salt intake, results in a reduction in plasma sodium which might contribute to lower blood pressure. 

In addition, a more recent study found that the DASH diet may lower all-cause mortality in adults. This includes heart disease from high blood pressure and high cholesterol. 

May be beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes

According to research, nearly two out of three individuals with diabetes also have high blood pressure. Since DASH is recommended for those with hypertension, those with diabetes and high blood pressure may also benefit from this diet. 

A randomized study found that the DASH diet had beneficial effects on blood pressure, blood lipids and on decreasing A1C levels (hemoglobin attached with glucose that reflect your blood glucose over the past 3 months) for those with diabetes. A follow-up study found that fruits and vegetables were the best groups for decreasing blood pressure in those with type 2 diabetes. More recent research needs to be done on this topic.      

May help you lose weight

Some studies suggest that the DASH diet can help you lose weight. Due to the limit on sugars, trans and saturated fats and sodium, you may see results on this diet. However, this may be due to the calorie restriction that comes from a daily calorie target and cutting certain foods out of your diet.  

How does the DASH diet work?

DASH is fairly simple to follow and contains four main points: calorie target, suggested servings, right foods and exercise. Before beginning the DASH diet, you first need to calculate how many calories you need each day to meet your goals (if you have a goal weight in mind). Use this tool to calculate by inputting your weight, gender, age, height and physical activity level. Next, you put in your goal weight (or your current weight if you’re not doing DASH for weight loss) and how much you will increase your physical activity level. The tool will calculate how many calories you need each day to maintain your current weight or reach your weight goal. This number is important for the next step. 

While you don’t necessarily need to count your calories on this diet, you do need to keep in mind suggested daily servings. Based on your personal calories-a-day target, DASH recommends daily servings of each accepted food group. Here is an example of suggestive servings for someone on a 2,000 calories-a-day plan:

  • Grains: Six to eight daily servings
  • Meats, poultry, fish: Six or fewer servings
  • Vegetables: Four to five daily servings
  • Fruit: Four to five daily servings
  • Low-fat dairy: Two to three daily servings
  • Fats and oils: Two to three daily servings
  • Sodium: 1,500 to 2,300 mg daily
  • Nuts, seeds, beans and peas: Four to five weekly servings
  • Sweets: Five or fewer weekly servings

In addition to eating the right foods on this diet, DASH recommends at least 30 minutes of exercise almost every day of the week. Try to aim for at least 2.5 hours of moderate exercise each week, and if you are trying to lose weight, target 60 minutes a day. 

Foods to eat on the DASH diet

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Lean proteins, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables and whole grains are all part of a heart-healthy diet.

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The DASH diet doesn’t have a strict set of foods that you must eat every day, nor phases where you can’t eat certain food groups like the Atkins diet. The DASH diet is fairly flexible as long as you keep in mind the recommended serving sizes mentioned above. On the DASH diet you can eat foods that include: 

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy 
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Vegetable oils

As for accepted beverages, most are fine. Just avoid sugary drinks.

Foods to limit on the DASH diet

Again, the DASH diet isn’t too strict. If you want to make the most of all the health benefits of this diet, try to limit your sodium and saturated and trans fat intake. Try to avoid or limit the following foods: 

  • Fatty meats (ham, bacon, sausage, steak and so on)
  • Full-fat dairy
  • Sugary beverages
  • Candy and other sweets
  • Excess sodium (canned items, packaged or microwavable meals, deli meats, condiments, etc.) 

DASH meal ideas

Fill your grocery list with these meal ideas for the week. Keep in mind your serving suggestions.  

Breakfast

  • Egg white omelet with scallions and cherry tomatoes
  • Low-fat yogurt, granola and fruit 

Lunch

  • Roasted turkey sandwich with two pieces of whole wheat bread
  • Penne with marinara sauce and parmesan  

Dinner

  • Chicken over brown rice with a side of steamed veggies
  • Grilled salmon, potatoes and a side salad with vinaigrette dressing   

Snacks

  • Vegetables with hummus  
  • Nuts and fruit

Is the DASH diet for you?

Healthy lifestyle on DASH diet, heart dish with weight scale and sports shoes in fitness center

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While there is some evidence to support the health benefits of DASH, the diet is not for everyone. Especially if you have a history of disordered eating, consider speaking with a doctor or a dietitian to find the right plan for you. If you are still considering the DASH diet, here are a few points to consider.  

You should try the DASH diet if:

  • You already eat lots of fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and whole grains
  • You are looking for a way to reduce your blood pressure
  • You want to reduce your saturated fat intake

Try another diet or seek a dietitian if:

  • You require extra support and guidance from a group or a coach 
  • You don’t do well with serving suggestions or portion control 
  • You struggle with maintaining a healthy level of sodium intake

DASH diet FAQs

What foods are not allowed on the DASH diet?

The following foods are limited on the DASH diet: fatty meats, full-fat dairy, sugary beverages, sweets and excessive sodium. If you want to gain all the heart-healthy benefits from this diet, try to limit your sugar, sodium and saturated and trans fat intake. 

What are the five components of the DASH diet?

The five components of the DASH diet refer to the food groups that the diet focuses on. The five components of the DASH diet include eating fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein.  

Are eggs part of the DASH diet?

Yes, eggs are acceptable on the DASH diet. Eggs are full of high-quality protein. Avoid pairing eggs with processed meats such as bacon or sausage that is high in saturated fats and sodium.

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