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Add a DASH of Health to Your Meals
Following the DASH diet and cutting down on sodium may lower high blood pressure.

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Add a DASH of Health to Your Meals

Known as the silent killer, high blood pressure, or hypertension, has no warning signs or symptoms. And it's more common in America than you might think. One in three U.S. adults has hypertension. And almost 30 percent have prehypertension - the precursor to hypertension.

High blood pressure should be taken seriously. Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against your artery walls. If this pressure remains too high for too long, it may harden, block or burst your arteries. If your arteries harden, the flow of oxygen and blood to your heart might decrease. This may cause chest pain, heart failure or heart attack. If your arteries are blocked or burst, the supply of oxygen and blood to your brain may be cut off. This may cause a stroke. High blood pressure may also increase your risk for kidney disease and blindness.

The good news is that whether you have prehypertension or hypertension, you have the power to control and even improve your condition by following the DASH diet. If you have normal blood pressure, you may be able to maintain it by following the DASH diet.

DASH for lower blood pressure
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, called the DASH diet, is a balanced and flexible eating plan designed to lower high blood pressure. It includes daily servings from different food groups.

It focuses on fruits, veggies and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. It is also low in cholesterol, saturated fat and total fat. The DASH diet is rich in fish, poultry, nuts, seeds and whole grains. And it has less red meats, sugars and sodium than the average American diet.

DASH was shown to effectively lower blood pressure numbers in studies sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. DASH greatly lowered blood pressure compared to the control diet, which was typical of what many Americans consume.

Ready, set, DASH!
To start the DASH diet, first figure out the number of calories you need per day. Check with your doctor to find out how many calories are right for you. This number will depend on your age, gender and activity level.

For example, a sedentary woman between the ages of 31 to 50 needs 1,800 calories per day. And a sedentary man in the same age group needs 2,200 calories per day. Sedentary means you get less than 30 minutes of activity each day.

Once you know your calorie limit, you can apply it to the DASH diet. The diet suggests serving amounts from each of the main food groups that will keep you in your recommended calorie range. Check with your doctor about what these serving amounts are for you.

Take the example of a sedentary man between ages 31 and 50 who needs 2,200 calories per day. For one day on the 2,000 calorie DASH, he could eat up to:

  • Six to eight servings of whole grains
  • Four to five servings of vegetables
  • Four to five servings of fruits
  • Two to three servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy
  • Six or fewer servings of lean meats, poultry or fish
  • Two to three servings of fats and oils
  • A maximum of 2,300 mg of sodium

In addition, each week he could eat up to:

  • Four to 5 servings of nuts, seeds and legumes
  • Five servings of sweets and added sugars

While that may sound like a lot of food, one serving actually isn't that much. For example, one serving of whole grains is the equivalent of one slice of bread, or half a cup of cereal, cooked pasta or rice. And one serving of veggies is the same as one cup of raw leafy veggies or a half cup of raw or cooked veggies.

Once you meet with your doctor to plan your DASH diet, plan to change your eating habits gradually over a few weeks. You should continue taking your high blood pressure medicine.

Less sodium for lower blood pressure
Americans consume way too much sodium or salt each day, an average of about 3,400 mg. But the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say healthy adults should only have a maximum of 2,300 mg of sodium per day. This is equal to about 1 teaspoon of salt. The recommended intake is 1,500 mg of sodium per day for those people who are:

  • Age 51 or older
  • African Americans of any age

And people with:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Heart disease

Sodium may increase blood pressure because it holds excess fluid in the body. This puts extra pressure on the heart. The DASH diet is already low in sodium with about 2,300 mg at most per day. But research shows that combining the DASH diet with only 1,500 mg of sodium a day may lower blood pressure even more.

Most sodium in the American diet comes from processed foods. Americans frequently consume many foods with lower amounts of sodium that add up. Limit the amount of processed foods you eat to reduce sodium in your diet. You can better control the amount of sodium in your food when you cook at home. Use herbs and spices to flavor food instead of salt. Ask for your food to be made without salt when you eat out.

Decreasing your sodium intake and following the DASH diet is a good start. Talk to your doctor about other lifestyle changes that may help you control or lower high blood pressure.

By Lucy M. Casale, Contributing Writer
Created on 11/22/2005
Updated on 09/03/2013
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is the DASH eating plan?
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What are the benefits of the DASH eating plan?
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High blood pressure.
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