Getting Started With the DASH Diet

Bowl of veggies on a table

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In This Article

The DASH Diet is one of the most widely recommended diets for improved health and wellness. This eating program is often recommended by healthcare providers to help patients manage or prevent high blood pressure. But this lifelong eating style can provide other health benefits as well. You may be able to lower your cholesterol levels or your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer by eating according to DASH.

On this diet, you will increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You'll reduce your intake of fat, added sugars, and sodium. By making small dietary changes at a steady pace, you should be able to create a satisfying meal plan that you can stick to for life.

Your Calorie Goals

The DASH Diet does not require that you count calories. Instead, you build a daily meal plan around servings of different food groups. But the number of servings allowed in each food group are determined by a recommended calorie target. So, before you begin the DASH Diet you'll have to determine a calorie goal.

DASH Diet guides provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provide recommendations to help you find the best calorie number. These estimates are based on age, gender, and activity level. Activity level categories are defined as follows:

  • Sedentary: You do only light physical activity that is part of your typical day-to-day routine. Your job does not involve physical activity.
  • Moderately Active: You do physical activity equal to walking about one to three miles per day at three to four miles per hour. You also do light physical activity (such as housecleaning or gardening).
  • Active: You do physical activity equal to walking more than three miles per day at three to four miles per hour, plus light physical activity. You may fall into the active category if your job requires regular physical activity.

Once you've determined your activity level, you can use the chart below to determine your calorie needs on the plan.

Your Daily Calorie Needs
Gender Age Sedentary Moderately Active Active
Female 19–30 2,000 2,000 to 2,200 2,400
  31–50 1,800 2,000 2,200
   51+ 1,600 1,800 2,000 to 2,200
Male 19–30 2,400 2,600 to 2,800 3,000
  31-50 2,200 2,400 to 2,600 2,800 to 3,000
  51+ 2,000 2,200 to 2,400 2,400 to 2,800

Keep in mind, that the calorie recommendations provided by the NIH (above) do not take height or weight loss goals into account. There are other ways to determine a calorie goal that may be more accurate, especially if you are trying to slim down.

For example, a calorie calculator like the one shown below uses the Mifflin St. Jeor equation to calculate your resting metabolic rate. That's the number of calories your body needs to function when it is at rest. Then, based on your personalized lifestyle information, the calculator adds the number of calories you need to fuel your body for daily activity. Finally, it either adds calories to gain weight or subtracts calories to help you lose weight. 

The DASH Diet provides serving size guidelines for those who are trying to slim down. So, if you use the calorie calculator and find that your optimal calorie goal is 1,200 or 1,400 calories (or more) per day you can still use DASH guides to find the correct number of servings in each food group.

Hydration Tips

Staying hydrated while adjusting to the DASH diet may help you to maintain your energy levels and stay full and satisfied between meals. It is not uncommon to crave food when you feel thirsty. But choosing DASH-friendly beverages is important. There are certain drinks that you'll want to reduce or eliminate.

While there are no specific guidelines regarding beverages, the overall recommendations for reducing your sugar and sodium intake will come into play when choosing what to drink.

Sodas and Other Sweetened Beverages

When you follow the DASH diet, you'll limit your intake of sweets and added sugars. Those in the 1,200 to 1,600 calorie range should consume less than three servings per week. Those who consume 1,800 to 2,000 calories should consume less than five servings per week, and if your calorie goal is higher, you can consume up to two servings per day. A serving is considered one cup of a sweetened beverage.

As a reference, one can of soda is usually 12 ounces or one and a half servings. If you choose to enjoy the entire can, you'll only have a half serving of sweets left for the week. That might be a half tablespoon of sugar on your cereal, a half tablespoon of jelly or jam, or a quarter cup of sorbet.

If possible, you may want to consider choosing water instead of soda. Diet sodas are another option. Because they do not contain sugar, an artificially-sweetened tea or soda would not count as a sweet. However, there has been some concern in the health community about whether or not artificially sweetened drinks are a healthy choice. In fact, some studies have even linked the consumption of artificial sweeteners to negative health outcomes including high blood pressure. 

If you enjoy drinking soda, consider using diet soda as a stepping stone to reducing your sugar intake. Eventually, see if you can replace your soda habit with a water habit to keep your body healthy and hydrated.

Fruit and Vegetable Juice

On the DASH Diet, fruit juice is considered to be a serving of fruit. One serving equals ½ cup of fruit juice. Because you are required to consume from three to six servings of fruit per day, consuming fruit juice will help you to reach those goals.

However, some health experts advise that consuming whole fruit is a smarter choice than consuming juice. Whole fruit provides vitamins and minerals along with fiber to help you feel full longer.

Also, check labels before choosing juice as your beverage. If your favorite juice contains added sugar, then it is no longer considered to be a serving of fruit, but rather a serving of sweets. Also, some vegetable juices contain added sodium. Since one of the primary goals of the DASH Diet is to reduce your sodium intake, brands with added sodium are not a smart choice.

Alcoholic Beverages

There are no specific guidelines regarding alcohol on the DASH Diet. However, tip sheets provided by NIH suggest that if you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation. Moderate drinking is defined as no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.

Also, be mindful of mixers if you consume an alcoholic beverage. Fruit mixers may contain added sugar and tonic water and other mixers may contain sodium.

Grocery Staples

Shopping on the DASH Diet is relatively easy. Everything you need can be found at your local supermarket. However, you should learn to read nutrition labels to check for excessive fat content or high levels of sodium.

Sodium

On the DASH Diet, your goal will be to reduce your sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day. Once you reach that level, speak to your healthcare provider about reducing it further to 1,500 milligrams per day. Most Americans consume about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day. Most of that comes from sodium in processed foods.

When shopping on the DASH Diet, there are two ways to look for lower sodium foods. First, you can read front-of-package labels to see how much sodium is contained in the product. Different phrases have different meanings.

  • Sodium free or salt-free means that the food contains less than five milligrams per serving.
  • Very low sodium means that the food contains 35 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
  • Low sodium means that the food contains 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
  • A low-sodium meal contains 140 milligrams or less of sodium per 3-1/2 ounce (100 gram) serving.
  • Light in sodium means that the food contains 50% less sodium than the regular version.
  • Unsalted or no salt added means that there is no salt added to the product during processing (this is not a sodium-free food).

Another way to check for sodium is to read the Nutrition Facts label. Sodium is listed in the middle of the label below cholesterol. Try to choose foods that are less than five percent of the Daily Value of sodium. Foods with 20% or more Daily Value of sodium are considered high sodium foods.

As a general guide, choose plain, fresh, or frozen vegetables as they are usually lower in sodium than canned goods. Also, fresh or frozen skinless poultry, fish, and lean cuts of meat are lower in sodium than those that are marinated, canned, smoked, brined, or cured. Lastly, read labels for condiments, salad dressing, processed cheese, and even baked goods (like bread and crackers). Many of these foods contain more sodium than you might expect.

Lastly, when you're checking the nutrition label for sodium, scan below to see how much potassium the food contains. The DASH Diet is designed to help you reach a target of 4,700 milligrams of potassium daily to enhance the effects of reducing sodium on blood pressure. Foods with potassium include potatoes, bananas, yogurt, lima beans, and orange juice.

Fat

You'll also decrease your fat intake on the DASH Diet. By increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, you will naturally reduce your intake of fatty foods. However, when you are grocery shopping, you can choose foods that contain less fat to reach your goals.

Again, read labels to make better food choices. Front-of-label phrases have specific meanings.

  • Fat-free means that the food contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.
  • Low in saturated fat means that the food contains one gram or less per serving and 15% or less of calories from saturated fat.
  • Low-fat means that the food contains three grams or less per serving.
  • Light in fat means that the food contains half of the fat of the traditional version.

As you get used to shopping for DASH-friendly foods, you may find that shopping the perimeter (outside ring) of the store makes it easier to find items that are naturally fat-free or low in fat. You'll also find that these foods contain less sodium.

Remember that no foods are off-limits on the DASH Diet, but you'll find that you are able to consume more satisfying meals when you choose foods that closest to their whole form and minimally processed.

Fill your shopping cart with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains first, then make a smaller space for lean protein, fat-free and low-fat dairy. Nuts, seeds, sweet treats, fats, and oils should take up a very small area in your cart as these foods are limited on the program.

Recipe Ideas

When choosing recipes, look for those that include seasonings other than salt. For example, recipes that use herbs, citrus, or vinegar for flavor are more likely to help you reach your sodium targets. Also, meals that use fruits or vegetables as primary ingredients will help you to reach your serving requirements for those foods.

Breakfast

Consider any of these breakfast recipes that help to boost your fruit and vegetable intake while keeping sodium levels in control. Each recipe contains no (or very little) added salt and a healthy boost of potassium.

Lunch/Dinner

Build meals around lean protein, fiber-rich grains, and vegetables to boost satisfaction levels after eating.

Snacks

Replace salty, starchy snacks (like pretzels or chips) with crunchy vegetable sticks or fresh fruit. Or consider one of these choices suggested by the NIH:

  • ⅓ cup unsalted almonds
  • ¼ cup dried apricots 
  • One cup fruit fat-free yogurt, no sugar added 
  • One tablespoon sunflower seeds, unsalted 
  • Two large graham cracker rectangles with one tablespoon peanut butter

Dessert

Fresh fruit is a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth. You can also try one of these recipes.

Cooking and Meal Planning

Cooking and planning meals with less salt and less fat is tricky at first but becomes easier with time. Reducing your dependence on convenience foods will help you to reduce sodium and fat intake. Instead, plan meals in advance with the help of worksheets provided by the NIH.

Reorganizing your kitchen may help you to stick to the DASH Diet, as well. Remove the salt shaker from your dinner table and from your cooking area. Keep dried spices on hand and consider experimenting with fresh herbs to flavor your food.

Also, change the way you prepare meals and snacks to reduce fat and sodium. Bake, roast, or steam foods with spices or citrus to keep meal selections healthy. Store containers of snack-ready sliced vegetables in your refrigerator and replace your countertop cookie jar with a fruit bowl to boost your intake of fruits and vegetables.

If changing your entire weekly meal plan seems like too much, then focus on making gradual changes. Break each task into small steps so that changing your diet doesn't seem overwhelming.

For example, if you currently don't eat many fruits and vegetables, begin by reducing the size of your salty side dishes and filling that space on your plate with fruits or vegetables. As you get more comfortable with consuming these healthy foods, try going meatless one day each week. Make a meal with healthy grains instead of beef or poultry or try a vegetable-based lasagna or casserole.

A Word From Verywell

Go easy on yourself as you adjust to the DASH Diet. For most Americans, the shift to this eating style is a challenge. Keep in mind, that it is normal to slip up from time to time. If it happens, the NIH suggests that you consider the reasons that you may have gotten off track and try to make changes so that it doesn't happen again.

Keep a journal as you adjust your diet and give yourself credit for each success along the way. Gather support from friends and family to keep your plan on track. You can also work together with your healthcare provider to boost motivation. According to the NIH, just two weeks on the DASH diet can lower your blood pressure. Seeing improvements in your health may help you to better manage the challenges that arise so that you can stick to the program for long-term health and wellness.

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Article Sources

  1. Ndahimana D, Choi YJ, Park JH, Ju MJ, Kim EK. Validity of predictive equations for resting energy expenditure in Korean non-obese adults. Nutr Res Pract.2018;12(4):283-290. doi:10.4162/nrp.2018.12.4.283

  2. Meghan B. Azad, et al. Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2017; 189 (28): E929 doi:10.1503/cmaj.161390

  3. DASH Eating Plan. Tips to Reduce Salt and Sodium. National Institutes of Health.

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