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What Is the DASH Diet?

Experts say it’s a good one to try if you’re looking to lower your blood pressure


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What’s the effect of a particular diet on lowering blood pressure? That’s the question researchers set out to answer in the ’90s when they randomly assigned 456 people to one of three diets:

1. What they called “a standard American diet,” emphasizing red and processed meats; refined grains like white rice and white bread; sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages.

2. A diet similar to the standard American diet, except with more fruits and vegetables and fewer snacks and sweets.

3. A diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; moderately high in lean protein such as low-fat dairy, fish and chicken; and high in minerals and fiber.

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Each of the three diets provided around 3,000 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, which is more than what’s recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but less than the average sodium intake for Americans (3,400 mg). Diets number 2 and 3, however, were richer in fiber as well as nutrients like potassium, magnesium, calcium and protein — all of which are thought to help lower blood pressure.

The landmark study, which was published in 1997 in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that the third diet — the one chock full of fruits, veggies, whole grains and some lean protein — was more effective in reducing blood pressure than the other two. What’s more, participants with high blood pressure (hypertension) who were assigned to the third diet showed greater decreases in blood pressure than those without hypertension.

In the years since, researchers have found that what’s known as the dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) diet has also been shown to lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), which along with high blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. No surprise, then, that DASH tops the list of the American Heart Association’s top 10 heart-healthy diets.  

What foods are allowed on the DASH diet?

Specific foods include fruits and vegetables, low-fat and no-fat dairy, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans and nuts. And because sodium has a very clear impact on heart health — research shows the risk of cardiovascular disease increases up to 6 percent for every 1-gram increase in sodium — the DASH plan recommends reducing sodium to about 2,300 mg per day, with a lower-salt version of the diet recommending no more than 1,500 mg per day (the amount in ¾ teaspoon of salt).

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Also recommended: limiting sweets to no more than five servings per week; avoiding foods rich in saturated fat (like whole-fat dairy and red meat); and drinking alcohol only in moderation, since alcohol can raise blood pressure.

The DASH Diet

Foods to eat:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Vegetables oils

Foods to limit:

  • Fatty meats
  • Full-fat dairy
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Sweets
  • Sodium (salt)

Source: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

But the DASH diet isn’t so much about individual foods as it is about the overall eating plan. Research shows that eating a variety of foods with nutrients that lower blood pressure has a greater effect on blood pressure than focusing on individual foods or nutrients.

With DASH, “the main focus points are reducing sodium and getting enough calcium in,” says Liz Weinandy, an outpatient dietitian and clinical instructor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “While it promotes many of the same healthy foods as the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet specifically reduces sodium and encourages three servings of low-fat dairy daily, as calcium has been found to help lower blood pressure.”

Worth noting: If you’re lactose intolerant, you may need to make adjustments, such as choosing lactose-free or lactose-reduced milk.

What are the health benefits of the DASH diet?

If you have high blood pressure — and more than two-thirds of people over age 65 do — your doctor may have already recommended the DASH diet for one very simple reason: It lives up to its name.

Research shows that the reduction of blood pressure among people who follow the DASH diet is comparable to that of people who take medication for stage 1 hypertension. But that’s not all. Research published in 2020 in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatology suggests it may also reduce the risk of gout, a painful inflammatory condition that’s common in people with hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases, by lowering levels of uric acid in the blood.

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“The focus is really on lowering blood pressure and, secondarily, to help lower LDL cholesterol to improve heart health and reduce the risk of stroke,” Weinandy says. “If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or you’re concerned about heart health for any reason, this is the diet to focus on. Everyone’s blood pressure will creep up with age, so this diet could be especially beneficial for those over 50.”

Can you lose weight on the DASH diet?

DASH wasn’t designed for weight loss, but it’s rich in low-calorie foods so it’s easy enough to adjust if you’re looking to lose weight. Plus, “weight loss may occur due to the elimination of ultra-processed foods, foods high in sugar, and refined grains, since these foods are void of fiber and make it hard to feel full,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian for the Cleveland Clinic. 

A study published in the medical journal JAMA found that people who followed DASH and who exercised and limited alcohol intake lost a significant amount of weight.

Worth noting: Being overweight or having obesity increases your risk of developing high blood pressure. In fact, your blood pressure rises as your body weight increases.

Losing even 10 pounds can lower your blood pressure — and losing weight has the biggest effect on those who are overweight and already have hypertension, according to a report from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

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