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Doing the DASH diet

A hand makes notes in a notebook on a produce-covered table.

You might not need medication to control your blood pressure if you change the foods you eat.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet has been proven to help people lower their blood pressure and, in turn, potentially reduce their risk for stroke, heart disease and other conditions.

How does it work? The DASH diet emphasizes whole foods—like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans—while limiting foods that are processed, salty or high in saturated fat. Pair that with regular exercise and you're well on your way to encouraging a healthy heart.

Lots of options

There's a lot to like about the DASH diet because a lot of foods fit within it. It doesn't require you to buy any special, prepackaged meals. Instead, it promotes regular foods you can find at any grocery store. And it can be a way of eating for the entire family.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), for someone eating about 2,000 calories a day, the DASH diet recommends:

  • Whole grains—six to eight servings a day.
  • Vegetables—four to five servings a day.
  • Fruits—four to five servings a day.
  • Low-fat or fat-free milk and dairy products—two to three servings a day.
  • Lean meat, poultry and fish—six or fewer servings a day.
  • Nuts, seeds and beans—four to five servings a week.
  • Healthy fats and oils—two to three servings a day.
  • Low-fat or fat-free sweets—five or fewer servings a week.
  • Sodium (salt)—no more than 2,300 mg a day.

If you are 40 or older, are African American or have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, limit your sodium intake to no more than 1,500 mg per day.

Not sure what constitutes a serving of food? Visualize a serving with this infographic.

Getting started

Ready to get DASHing? First, talk with your doctor if one of your goals is losing weight. You may need to eat fewer than the standard 2,000 calories a day.

Second, become friendly with Nutrition Facts labels on foods. You'll find serving sizes as well as sodium content there.

Additional tips from the AAFP and others:

  • Keep a food journal, at least when you start. It's a lot easier to remember what you've eaten if you write it down.
  • Overhauling your entire diet can be overwhelming. So start slow, with small, achievable goals. Once a goal becomes a habit, move on to the next goal.
  • Take the salt off the table. Flavor your foods with salt-free seasoning blends, fresh or dried herbs and spices, or lemon or lime juice.
  • Choose fresh or frozen vegetables when you can. If you buy canned, look for the low-sodium kind. Or rinse the vegetables under running water to remove excess salt.
  • Avoid buying foods with added salt, such as pickles, pickled vegetables, olives and sauerkraut.
  • As you reduce the amount of meat you eat, increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dry beans.
  • Enhance the effects of reducing your sodium by eating foods high in potassium. These include potatoes; plain yogurt; lima beans; bananas; cod, halibut, rockfish and tuna; lentils; and kidney beans.

Staying motivated

Remember that just about everyone slips up when trying to change their habits. Figure out what sent you off track and press the restart button.

Also, don't forget to celebrate your successes with nonfood rewards. Treat yourself to a movie or invite a friend on a shopping trip.

Reviewed 12/30/2020

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