What Is the DASH Diet?

Grain Bowl with Peanut Sauce
Enrique Díaz / 7cero / Getty Images
In This Article

Are you trying to lower your blood pressure with dietary changes? If so, you're not alone. High blood pressure affects over 65 million people in the United States. That’s about one in every three adults. And the condition, also known as hypertension, can have serious complications.

The DASH Diet is the eating program most frequently recommended for reducing blood pressure. But this widely studied diet plan can provide other benefits as well. Learn how this eating style compares to other diets and consider the pros and cons to decide if it might be a smart program for you.

What Experts Say

The DASH diet is an eating plan developed to reduce blood pressure. The recommended foods and variety offer results supported by research. However, if they are packaged as a weight loss plan, negative consequences of dieting may apply.

—Willow Jarosh, MS, RD

Background

In 1992, researchers from the National Institutes of Health received funding to investigate if dietary changes could reduce blood pressure in test subjects. They began a trial named Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH). There were 459 adults enrolled in the study, some with high blood pressure and some without.

For three weeks, test subjects were fed a control diet that was low in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, with a fat content typical of the average diet in the United States at the time. After that initial phase of the research, subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group ate a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. The other group ate a “combination” diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products and with reduced saturated and total fat. Sodium intake and body weight were maintained at constant levels.

Study authors found that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods and with reduced saturated and total fat can substantially lower blood pressure. Their findings were published in the April 1997 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Specifically, researchers found that the combination diet reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 11.4 and 5.5 mm Hg more than the control diet in people with hypertension. In people with normal blood pressure, the diet was also able to reduce blood pressure, although less significantly.

The diet was further studied in trials including the Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial for Heart Health (OmniHeart). Additionally, researchers began to study different sodium levels combined with the DASH Diet to see if it would result in further benefits for those with high blood pressure.

In 2001, researched published another study in The New England Journal of Medicine finding that lower sodium levels combined with the DASH Diet can substantially lower blood pressure. They also suggested that "long-term health benefits will depend on the ability of people to make long-lasting dietary changes and the increased availability of lower-sodium foods."

Since that time, the DASH Diet has become one of the most widely studied, widely recommended, and widely recognized diets. Free resources are available to consumers on the National Institutes of Health website, making it one of the most easily accessible diets, as well.

How It Works

The DASH Diet is not a diet that you follow for a short period of time to lose weight. Instead, it is an eating style that is followed for life to boost health and wellness. There are no specific calorie requirements and no foods that are off-limits.

Consumers build meals around foods from a variety of different food groups and try to limit sodium to 2,300 milligrams or 1,500 milligrams per day. You can also expect to reduce your overall fat intake. When following the DASH diet you are advised to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, legumes, and low- or non-fat dairy products.

To figure out how many servings of each food group to consume, you first determine your total calorie intake level. Calorie level recommendations vary based on age, gender, and activity level.

Women can expect to consume 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day. Men can expect to consume 2,000 to 3,100 calories per day. You are not required to count calories. But the more calories you can consume per day, the more servings you'll consume from each food group.

The NIH DASH Eating Plan also makes lifestyle recommendations to prevent hypertension or to lower blood pressure. Consumers are advised to:

  • Be physically active
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Manage and cope with stress
  • Quit smoking
  • Get plenty of sleep

Pros and Cons

Americans who try the DASH Diet can expect to gain several health benefits. Researchers continue to find new advantages. But there are also a few drawbacks that you may want to consider.

First and foremost, you can expect to see your blood pressure decrease if you stick to this diet. Repeated studies continue to find that eating according to DASH recommendations can help to treat or prevent hypertension.

Additionally, those who follow the eating plan may be able to reduce LDL cholesterol and improve other cardiovascular risk factors. The DASH diet has been shown to be an effective management strategy for diabetes and other illnesses.

In addition to studies supporting the DASH diet specifically, research has consistently found that reducing your sugar intake, eliminating heavily processed, sodium-rich foods, and increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables leads to a wide range of health benefits.

However, this diet may be hard to stick to. A study investigating DASH diet compliance found that people have a hard time sticking to the program and need more than just counseling to stick with it for the long term. And other studies have suggested that increasing the fat intake while lowering sugar intake on the diet may provide the same health benefits and promote better adherence.

Common Myths and Questions

Myth: You can't consume any added salt on the DASH Diet

It is true that DASH experts recommend removing the salt shaker from the table. They encourage you to flavor your food with citrus, spices, or vinegar. However, most of the sodium that Americans consume is found in processed foods. By eliminating or reducing your intake of convenience and snack foods (like microwavable meals, canned soups, pretzels, and crackers) you will substantially reduce your sodium intake. This may allow you to add some salt to your food.

Myth: Everyone on the DASH diet consumes 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.

Nutrition experts who develop the DASH eating program guidelines suggest that you start by reducing your sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day. Once you have reached that level they suggest that you speak with your healthcare provider to see if reducing it to 1,500 milligrams per day will provide further health benefits.

Question: Can I lose weight on the DASH diet?

DASH is not designed for weight loss. Also, there have been few long-term studies investigating weight loss on the eating plan.

However, for many people, this diet will help them lose weight. Simply cutting your fat intake may help you to create the energy deficit needed for weight loss. In addition, boosting your fruit and vegetable intake and focusing on whole grains will help you to feel full longer after eating and may help you to eat less for weight loss results.

How It Compares

The DASH Diet consistently ranks as one of the healthiest diets available. Also, since information about how to follow this diet is free and based on solid research, it is often recommended by healthcare professionals. But there are other diets that are recommended as well.

USDA Recommendations

When you follow the DASH Diet, you can expect to consume macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, protein) in line with recommendations provided by the USDA. You will also benefit from consuming adequate amounts of important micronutrients including fiber and important vitamins and minerals.

The diet requires you to consume from all food groups recommended by the USDA and also limits food and food ingredients according to recommended guidelines. However, one area where the DASH diet differs from the USDA 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is that it does not specifically promote healthy (plant-based) fats and oils.

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet is another top-ranked, evidence-based eating program. Like the DASH Diet, there are no specific calorie guidelines and no foods are off-limits. But healthy food choices are recommended. On the Mediterranean diet, you'll consume plenty of fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains, in line with USDA recommendations.

However, on the Mediterranean diet, healthy plant-based oils (such as olive oil) are promoted. As a result, you are probably going to consume more fat on the Mediterranean diet. However, the fats are likely to be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats which are considered to be better for you than saturated fat.

Like DASH, the Mediterranean diet has been widely studied and is known to provide substantial health benefits, including a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, certain cancers, obesity, and diabetes.

Flexitarian Diet

The Flexitarian Diet is a vegetarian diet that allows for more flexibility. This diet is also highly ranked by health experts because it promotes plant-based eating but allows for occasional meat-based meals which may help to boost adherence.

Some people who follow a flexitarian diet simply eat vegetarian and then sometimes eat meat. But others follow a book based on the eating program. If you follow the book by registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, you can expect to eat meals that are calorie-restricted. Your total daily intake will be at about 1,500 calories. You'll consume from a variety of food groups, in accordance with USDA recommendations.

A plant-based eating plan also provides documented health benefits including a reduced risk for heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.

Mayo Clinic Diet

The Mayo Clinic diet is similar to DASH in that it was developed by medical experts to improve factors related to heart health. However, it differs from the other programs listed in that it is a fee-based subscription program. The program is inexpensive, however, and promises to help you lose weight and improve wellness.

Men can plan to consume between 1,400 to 1,800 calories per day. Women can plan to consume 1,200 to 1,600 calories on the plan. The foods recommended on this plan will help you to reach the USDA recommendations for good nutrition.

Getting Started

According to the health experts at the National Institutes of Health, just two weeks on the DASH eating plan can reduce your blood pressure. So, while the adjustment to this eating style may be challenging, it comes with substantial benefits—especially if you are trying to manage hypertension.

Try making small changes first. Learn how to read nutrition labels to look for lower sodium foods, remove the salt shaker from the dinner table and cooking area, and replace starchy side dishes with fruits or vegetables.

Once you feel comfortable making small changes, start to create meal plans in accordance with the food group recommendations provided.

A Word From Verywell

The DASH Diet is not only recommended by highly respected medical organizations, but the health benefits that you are likely to gain are also supported by strong scientific evidence. However, remember that there is no diet that works for everyone.

As you evaluate the pros and cons of this eating style, the food recommendations, and the lifestyle changes you may have to make, think about whether or not you think these changes will be manageable. If you are unsure, consider making one or two DASH-related diet changes and see how it goes.

Lastly, speak to your healthcare provider about the way that dietary changes might impact your specific health profile. In some cases, you may be able to reduce your dependence on medication or eliminate it altogether. Knowing these facts may boost your motivation as you make decisions about the right eating plan for you.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Appel, L. J., Moore, T. J., Obarzanek, E., Vollmer, W. M., Svetkey, L. P., Sacks, F. M., … Harsha, D. W. (1997). A Clinical Trial of the Effects of Dietary Patterns on Blood Pressure. New England Journal of Medicine, 336(16), 1117–1124. doi:10.1056/nejm199704173361601

  2. Sacks FM, Svetkey LP, Vollmer WM, et al. Effects on blood pressure of reduced dietary sodium and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. DASH-Sodium Collaborative Research Group. N Engl J Med. 2001;344(1):3-10. doi:10.1056/NEJM200101043440101

  3. Schwingshackl, L., Chaimani, A., Schwedhelm, C., Toledo, E., Pünsch, M., Hoffmann, G., & Boeing, H. (2018). Comparative effects of different dietary approaches on blood pressure in hypertensive and pre-hypertensive patients: A systematic review and network meta-analysis. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 1–14. doi:10.1080/10408398.2018.146396

  4. Kwan, M. W.-M., Wong, M. C.-S., Wang, H. H.-X., Liu, K. Q.-L., Lee, C. L.-S., Yan, B. P.-Y., … Griffiths, S. M. (2013). Compliance with the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet: A Systematic Review. PLoS ONE, 8(10), e78412. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078412

  5. Hever J. Plant-Based Diets: A Physician's GuidePerm J. 2016;20(3):15–082. doi:10.7812/TPP/15-082

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

Additional Reading