Health

Control your blood pressure with the DASH diet

The DASH diet isn’t another fad - it’s an evidence-based eating plan that can help prevent and control high blood pressure. With these simple swaps and sample menus, you’ll be on your way to better health within weeks.

By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

Did you know 26% of Australians aged 45 to 54 have high blood pressure and that number climbs to 44% in people aged 75 to 84? 

Most people with high blood pressure don’t have any symptoms, so it can fly under the radar for years. But if it’s left untreated, it can lead to heart disease, stroke and chronic kidney disease. 

Are you ready for some good news? By making some simple changes to your diet, you can prevent or control high blood pressure and reduce your risk of a range of diseases.

What is the DASH diet?

Your blood pressure is considered high if it’s over 140/90mmHg - with the first number indicating systolic blood pressure and the second diastolic blood pressure.

People with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease may need to keep their blood pressure below 130/80mmHg.

DASH - a catchy acronym that stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension - has been shown to reduce blood pressure by 6mmHg systolic and 3mmHg diastolic within 2 to 4 weeks. After that, staying on the diet helps maintain a healthier blood pressure.

A large body of research has shown that the DASH diet can also help people lose weight, control type 2 diabetes, lower their cholesterol, improve their heart health and reduce their risk of some types of cancer. 

If you’re ready to scroll away because you assume such impressive results can only be achieved by eating a steady diet of kale and tofu, you’ll be happy to know that no foods are strictly off-limits.

The DASH eating plan is similar to the popular Mediterranean diet with its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, but DASH doesn’t focus heavily on fish or olive oil. It doesn’t include wine (sorry!), but you can enjoy some sweet treats in moderation.

Cutting sodium

The main goal of the DASH eating plan is to reduce the amount of sodium (salt) in your diet because eating too much salt can increase blood pressure. Most of us consume 10 times the amount of salt we need!

You might think you’re safe because you never add salt to your food, but there’s a lot of sodium in processed and packaged foods. Even sweet biscuits can have just as much or more sodium than savoury ones.

The standard DASH diet restricts sodium intake to 2300mg (1 teaspoon) a day. There’s also a lower-salt version for people who need better results that limits daily salt intake to 1500mg (¾ of a teaspoon).

Increasing key nutrients

DASH includes a variety of foods that are rich in nutrients that help lower blood pressure, including fibre, potassium, magnesium and calcium. 

While you might be tempted to take supplements to boost your intake, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are more potent when they come from food. Talk to your GP before taking any supplements.

What foods are included in the DASH diet?

Unlike other eating plans, DASH isn’t super restrictive. You can still enjoy bread, pasta, dairy products, fat and sweets in limited quantities. 

Here are the recommended servings of each food.

Fruits

4-5 per day

1 medium fruit

½ cup fresh, frozen or canned fruit

¼ cup dried fruit

Vegetables

4-5 per day

1 cup leafy greens

½ cup raw or cooked chopped veggies

Reduced-fat or non-fat dairy

2-4 per day

250ml light or skim milk

1 cup low-fat or fat-free yoghurt

50g reduced-fat cheese

Grains and grain products

6-8 per day (including at least 3 whole grain options)

1 slice bread

1 cup dry cereal

½ cup cooked rice or pasta

Lean meat, poultry and fish

Maximum 2 per day

90 g cooked (with skin removed from poultry)

Nuts, seeds and legumes

4-5 per week

⅓ cup nuts

1 tbsp seeds

½ cup cooked beans

Fats and oils

2-3 per day 

1 tsp olive oil or other vegetable oil

1 tsp margarine

2 tbsp light salad dressing

1 tbsp low-fat mayonnaise

Sweets

Maximum of 5 per week

1 tbsp jam

1 tbsp sugar

250ml lemonade

15g jelly beans

Foods to limit on the DASH diet

While nothing is completely off the menu on the DASH diet, you should limit the following foods and drinks that could increase your blood pressure:

  • Salt: Keep your sodium intake under 2300mg a day by cutting back on processed foods.

  • Red and fatty meats: Reduce the amount of beef, pork, lamb and poultry skin you eat.
  • Tropical oils: Try to avoid oils that are solid at room temperature, including coconut and palm oils.

  • Full-fat dairy: Choose low-fat dairy options over whole milk, butter and cream.

  • Sugary foods and drinks: Keep your consumption of cakes, lollies, chocolate, soft drinks and other sugary beverages to a minimum.

  • Caffeine and alcohol: The DASH diet doesn’t address these two much-loved beverages, but alcohol can raise blood pressure in some people, so it’s best to limit it.

Research results are unclear when it comes to the relationship between caffeine and high blood pressure, so experts recommend listening to your body and cutting back if you feel like it affects you negatively.

6 tips to make your diet DASH-friendly

You don’t have to give up all your favourite foods on the DASH diet. These simple swaps and tricks will help you make your meals and snacks healthier without sacrificing on flavour.

  • Swap white bread for wholemeal.

  • Keep a container of chopped veggies (such as carrots, celery, cucumbers and baby tomatoes) in the fridge for snacking. Add a small portion of hummus for some extra flavour and protein.

  • Prepare a big bowl of colourful fruit salad and enjoy it for dessert throughout the week.

  • Swap one meat-based meal per week for the vegetarian version. Try Citro's plant-based Shepherd's pie or sweet potato burrito recipes.
  • Grate extra veggies into your sauces. You won’t even notice them!

Sample DASH diet meal plan

Here’s what a typical DASH menu looks like:

Breakfast

1 cup rolled oats

250ml light milk or 1 cup reduced-fat yoghurt

½ cup mixed berries

1 tbsp seeds

Tea with light milk

Lunch

3 cups spinach leaves

90g cooked chicken (no skin)

50g goat cheese

1 cup chopped cucumber and tomato

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1 small wholemeal roll

Water

Dinner

90g cooked salmon

2 tbsp honey balsamic glaze

½ cup cooked brown rice

½ cup roasted veggies

1 cup fruit salad

Herbal tea or water

Snack options

2 Vita-Wheats crackers with 1 slice of reduced-fat cheese and veggie sticks

1 medium piece of fruit with ⅓ cup mixed nuts

3 rice cakes spread with 2 tbsp mashed avocado

You’ll find countless other DASH diet recipes online that will keep your belly satisfied and your blood pressure under control. Who said healthy eating had to be boring?

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