American Heart Month marks a time to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease and put a little more thought into keeping our tickers healthy. Diet is one of the best ways to do that.
The DASH diet should be on your radar if you are trying to reduce high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. DASH is an acronym that stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.
Primary Care Providers (PCPs) may recommend the DASH diet to a patient with high blood pressure. Recent studies have found the DASH diet to be successful in improving blood pressure and lowering LDL cholesterol levels, both of which are big risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Other studies found that the DASH eating plan can lower blood pressure in as fast as 2 weeks. Let’s explore what the DASH diet is all about.

What does salt do to the heart?

At its core, the DASH diet focuses on eliminating as much sodium from your diet as possible. When the bloodstream contains excess sodium, it pulls water into the blood vessels and increases the amount of blood in them. With this fluid retention comes an increase in blood pressure. Sodium can be even more damaging to a person’s blood pressure if they are more sensitive to salt.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), salt can influence your blood pressure based on these factors:
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Medical conditions like diabetes or chronic kidney disease
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Weight
The AHA states that if Americans consumed a maximum of 1,500 milligrams per day of sodium, the population would see a 25.6% decrease in high blood pressure.

What do you eat in the DASH diet?

The heart-healthy DASH diet is heavy on foods that are low in salt and saturated fat, and contain potassium, calcium, magnesium, protein and fibers. Here’s what you should eat, along with recommended serving sizes:
  • Fruits: 4 to 5 daily servings. One serving may be one medium fruit, a half cup of fresh, frozen or canned fruit or a half cup of fruit juice.
  • Vegetables: 4 to 5 daily servings. One serving may one cup of raw, leafy green vegetables, a half cup of cut-up raw or cooked vegetables or a half cup vegetable juice.
  • Grains: 6-8 daily servings. One serving may be a half cup of unsalted rice or pasta, one slice of bread or a half cup of cooked cereal.
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy products: 2 to 3 daily servings. One serving may be one cup of yogurt or milk.
  • Lean meats, poultry and fish (or tofu): 6 one-ounce servings or fewer a day. One serving may be one ounce of cooked meat, poultry or fish, or one egg. Or, if you broke it down by two servings per day, you could have three ounces of cooked meat or three ounces of cooked tofu twice a day.
  • Nuts, seeds, or dry beans and peas: 4 to 5 servings per week. One serving may be a third of a cup of unsalted nuts or a half cup of cooked, unsalted beans.
  • Fats and oils: 2 to 3 daily servings. One serving may be one teaspoon of olive oil or two tablespoons of salad dressing.
Limit sweets and added sugars to five serving or fewer per week. For example, one serving is one tablespoon of sugar, jelly or jam, or a half cup of sorbet. Additionally, excessive alcohol can increase blood pressure. When on this diet, consider following The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations, which is that men limit alcohol to a maximum of two drinks a day and women a maximum of one or less.

Steps for success: How to incorporate the DASH diet into your everyday life 

These tips can help you stay on track after making the move to the DASH diet.
Change gradually: If you weren’t a big fruit and veggie fan before, start adding one serving of each as sides to one meal a day. Then start adding them to two meals a day. Eventually, add servings of fruit and veggies to every meal.
Limit salt when cooking: Focus on adding flavor without adding salt. According to the National Kidney Foundation, these replacements could grow on you:
  • Aromatic vegetables like onions, peppers and garlic.
  • Flavor with fruit like citrus juice and fruit zest.
  • Herbs like rosemary, parsley and cilantro.
  • Spices like black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, ginger and nutmeg.
Make low-sodium snack swaps: Look for unsalted snacks or snacks with no added salt. Apples, roasted chickpeas, sodium-free or low-sodium nuts, and carrots with hummus are great ideas.
Focus on low or no-fat dairy: Remember that fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk, yogurt, and reduced-fat cheese can cut down the amount of saturated fat and calories. Many brands of Greek yogurt and cottage cheese have low-fat and low-sodium options.
Vary your proteins: Check the labels on ground meats and chicken brands and choose those with lower saturated fat. Also, be sure to mix fish in as your meat of choice regularly. Try to focus on vegetarian proteins one or two days a week to limit saturated fat. Tofu, seitan and chickpeas can serve as tasty options.
Related reading:
Photo credit: Getty Images

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