what are the health benefits of the dash diet
What Are the Health Benefits of the DASH Diet?
by Akeena St. Martin
Feb 8, 2023

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is something that many people have and don’t know it. It rarely shows any warning signs or symptoms, and, therefore, it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking out for it.   

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost half of the adults in the US have hypertension and most don’t have it under control.  Over half a million people died in 2019 because of hypertension.  Hypertension can be very dangerous because it increases your risk for a heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and blindness.  This is why regular blood pressure screening and incorporating a healthy diet and lifestyle are so important.

The foods you eat affect so many aspects of your health and it’s never too late to start enjoying a more “heart-healthy” diet.  In fact, there is one eating plan that’s been specially designed to help with high blood pressure.  That’s called the DASH diet, and research says that it works!!  This post will answer what is and what are the health benefits of the DASH diet.

**Disclaimer: If your doctor recommends medication to help you control your blood pressure, be sure to take it as directed and go for routine monitoring or testing as required.**

What is Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure is the amount of pressure your heart needs to use to keep blood flowing through your vessels.  Think of it as water flowing through a flexible tube versus flowing through a stiff, hard, narrow pipe.  Imagine the amount of pressure you would need to push the water through the hose versus the pipe.  That’s how blood pressure works.  The more force needed, the more pressure it puts on your vessels, and the more damage it can do to the pump and the vessels.  This is what happens when your blood pressure is high over several years.

A normal blood pressure reading is 120/80 mm Hg.  The fraction represents systolic/diastolic.   Systolic pressure is the pressure in your vessels as your heart beats.   Diastolic pressure is the pressure in your vessels between beats.   If your blood pressure is slightly higher than these numbers, then your blood pressure may be, “elevated,” and possibly hypertensive.

The blood pressure stages are:

  • Normal:  <120 / <80 mm Hg
  • Elevated:  120 – 129 / <80 m Hg
  • Stage 1:  130 – 139 / 80-89 mm Hg
  • Stage 2:  ≥ 140 / ≥90 mm Hg

High blood pressure usually develops over many years.  It can happen because of diabetes, obesity, not getting enough physical activity, or even pregnancy.

The good news is that there are ways you can manage high blood pressure and lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and vision loss.

What Healthy Lifestyle Habits Can Help Lower Blood Pressure?

There are several healthy lifestyle habits that can lower your risk for high blood pressure.   These include:

  • Not smoking
  • Doing at least 150 minutes per week of physical activity
  • Managing stress in a positive way

What is the Connection Between Sodium and Your Blood Pressure?

Your blood pressure is impacted by your nutrition.  There are several nutrients that can increase or decrease your blood pressure, depending on how much you consume.  Calcium, magnesium, and potassium are minerals that can help lower your blood pressure.  Fiber and protein are also important.  However, the most infamous nutrient linked to increased blood pressure is sodium. 

In general, more sodium you consume, the higher your blood pressure.  Sodium is one part of the salt compound, sodium chloride.  Sodium is found not only in table salt, but in processed and packaged foods as well.    

A recent study enrolled 20,995 participants with a history of hypertension or stroke to determine if using a low-sodium salt substitute would reduce their risk of stroke, heart incidents, and death.  Half of the participants continued to use regular salt over several years, while the other half used the salt substitute.  Five years later, participants who consumed the lower-sodium salt had fewer strokes, heart incidents, and deaths and were able to reduce their risks by 12-14%. 

What is the DASH Diet?

DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.  It is a dietary pattern developed to help lower your blood pressure.  The DASH diet has been deemed one of the best overall diets by U.S. News and is ranked among the top diets in the categories of heart-healthy, healthy eating, diabetes, easy-to-follow, and overall diets.  Some studies show that the blood pressure-lowering effect of the DASH diet can be similar to that of people taking medication.

The DASH diet is full of heart-healthy foods that contain nutrients that help lower your blood pressure.  It is based on a 2,000-calorie diet with no more than 2,000 mg of Sodium.  Listed below are the recommendations on how much to eat from each group and what counts as a serving:

  • 6 – 8 servings per day of whole grains,
    • 1 slice of bread
    • 1 ounce of dry cereal
    • ½ cup cooked rice, cereal, or pasta
  • 4 – 5 servings per day of fruits
    • 1 medium fruit, 
    • 1/2 cup fresh, frozen, or canned fruit, 
    • 1/2 cup fruit juice
  • 4 – 5 servings per day of vegetables
    • 1 cup raw, leafy green vegetables, 
    • 1/2 cup raw or cooked vegetables, 
    • 1/2 cup vegetable juice
  • 2 – 3 servings per day of low-fat or fat-free dairy
    • 1 cup milk or yogurt, 
    • 1 1/2 oz cheese
  • No more than two 3-oz servings per day of meat, poultry, or fish
    • 1 oz cooked meat, poultry, or fish, 
    • 1 egg
  • 2 – 3 servings per day of fats and oils
    • 1 tsp soft margarine or vegetable oil, 
    • 1 tbs mayonnaise, 
    • 2 tbs salad dressing
  • 4 – 5 servings per day of nuts, seeds, or beans
    • 1/3 cup nuts, 
    • 2 tbs peanut butter or seeds, 
    • 1/2 cup cooked beans
  • No more than 5 servings per week of sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages
    • 1 tbs sugar, jelly, or jam, 
    • 1/2 cup sorbet, 
    • 1 cup lemonade

As you may have noticed, the DASH diet limits very few foods and nutrients.  Sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, red meats, and sweets (including sugar-sweetened beverages) are still included, just in smaller amounts.  A prime example that all foods can fit into a healthy diet.

However, when transitioning to a higher-fiber diet with more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, such as the DASH diet, do this slowly to reduce your risk of experiencing gas and bloating.  This can easily be accomplished by increasing these plant-based foods by one or two per week until you are eating the recommended amounts.

What Are the Health Benefits of the DASH Diet?

There are several health benefits of following the DASH diet.  They include:

  • Lower cholesterol:  Your cholesterol level is most affected by the amount of saturated fat, not the amount of cholesterol, you consume from foods.  By opting for leaner meats and adding fish and plant-based protein to your diet, you are eating more healthy fats, which help to lower your cholesterol.
  • Reduce cardiovascular disease risk:  High sodium intake is associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease.  Consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in sodium, such as the DASH diet, has been shown to help lower blood pressure and risk for heart attack and stroke.
  • Help control blood sugar:  Whole grains are less likely than refined grains to spike your blood sugar.  They are also good sources of fiber, protein, and other vitamins and minerals.
  • Aid in weight loss:  The DASH diet is high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which are good sources of fiber and lower in calories.  Fiber helps you to feel full, which may aid in weight loss.

Final Thoughts

If you have hypertension or are interested in eating healthier to reduce your risk of heart disease, then the DASH diet may be for you.  The DASH diet is rich in blood pressure lowering foods that can help you lower your chances of heart disease and stroke.

The DASH diet is considered one of the easiest diets to follow and includes simple nutritional improvements like enjoying more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

If you are interested in learning more about how to control or maintain your blood pressure by eating healthier, then consult a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who can help. 

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