The DASH Diet, Explained: Benefits, Foods Lists + Sample Meal Plan

The DASH Diet is one of the most universally-accepted healthy diets for weight loss, improved health, and decreased disease risk.

But, what is the DASH Diet? What are the benefits of the DASH Diet for weight loss and health compared to other popular weight loss diets?

In this guide, we will discuss what the DASH Diet is, how to follow it, its benefits, foods you can eat on the DASH Diet, foods to avoid, and a sample meal plan to give you an idea of what it looks like to follow this diet.

We will cover the following:

  • What Is the DASH Diet?
  • What Are the Benefits Of the DASH Diet?
  • What Foods Can You Eat On the DASH Diet?
  • What Foods Are Not Allowed On the DASH Diet?
  • Sample DASH Diet Meal Plan

Let’s get started!

A notebook with the words DASH diet.

What Is the DASH Diet?

The DASH Diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.

Thus, this diet is designed and recommended for people who want to prevent or treat hypertension and reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke. 

Nearly half of all American adults now suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure).

The defining feature of the DASH Diet is its maximum sodium limit, which is 2,300 mg or one teaspoon per day for the standard version of the DASH Diet and just 1,500 mg or 3/4 of a teaspoon on the lower-salt iteration.

This is because a high-sodium diet can increase blood pressure. 

Besides limiting sodium intake, the DASH Diet limits the intake of red meat, added sugars, refined grains, artificial ingredients, and excessive fats. 

Instead, this diet focuses on consuming vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, seeds, and legumes. 

One of the main reasons that the DASH Diet is considered one of the healthiest diets for weight loss and overall health is the emphasis on eating foods in their most natural, unprocessed state and avoiding processed foods as much as possible.

A variety of healthy foods such as as vegetables, grains, eggs and healthy fats.

What Are the Benefits Of the DASH Diet?

Aside from the Mediterranean diet, the DASH Diet is one of the most well-studied, research-backed, healthy dietary lifestyle plans, with plenty of evidence demonstrating the disease-mitigating effects and health benefits.

Due to the substantiated DASH Diet benefits, this dietary approach also consistently places among the top two or three diets in the annual U.S. News and World Report ranking of best diets. 

The DASH Diet was initially created to reduce the risk of hypertension and help manage high blood pressure in those who already have hypertension.

Studies have found that this diet is indeed effective at lowering blood pressure, particularly in individuals who have been diagnosed with hypertension (defined as a blood pressure of at least 140/90 mmHg on multiple readings). 

For example, one study found that after eight weeks, participants who followed the DASH Diet experienced significant reductions in blood pressure compared to controls.

Salmon and veggies.

Subjects who had hypertension saw a decrease in blood pressure of 11.6/5.3 mmHg, and even those with normal blood pressure saw a decrease in blood pressure of 3.5/2.2 mmHg after following this diet.

Other DASH Diet health benefits include improving insulin sensitivity and helping manage symptoms of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome

It has also been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers, including colorectal cancer and stomach cancer. 

Lastly, many people follow the DASH Diet for weight loss with great success, largely due to the fact that it is more of a lifestyle approach to eating rather than a restrictive weight loss diet

This can improve adherence in the long term, which can help you lose weight and keep it off rather than lose weight temporarily and gain it back as soon as you go off the diet. 

Plus, this diet limits processed foods, added sugars, and many other unhealthy foods in the Western diet and instead focuses on nourishing, filling foods such as fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, eggs, seeds, nuts, legumes, and low-fat dairy products. 

A variety of healthy foods you can eat on the dash diet such as fish, cheese and veggies.

What Foods Can You Eat On the DASH Diet?

The DASH Diet provides recommendations for the number of servings of each food group you should eat on a daily or weekly basis based on a 2000-calorie-per-day intake, but you can adjust the servings if your caloric needs are much higher or lower. 

One benefit of the serving size approach is that you have the flexibility to choose the foods to eat on the DASH Diet that fall within the food group recommended instead of having to eat specific “DASH Diet foods.“

That said, to maximize the health benefits of the DASH Diet, choose whole, natural, unprocessed foods that are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber and free from refined and processed ingredients. 

Keep in mind that the serving sizes for the DASH Diet food groups are based on the USDA serving sizes for each food group, not what we often call a serving size in America or other Western countries.

For example, a serving of whole grains is one slice of bread or 1/2 cup of cooked pasta or rice.

A variety of healthy foods you can eat on the dash diet such as fish, cheese and veggies.

For those who eat 2000 calories per day, the DASH Diet recommends the following daily allowances:

  • Whole Grains: 6-8 servings per day. Examples: Quinoa, whole wheat, teff, rye, brown rice, whole oats
  • Fish, Poultry, Eggs, and Lean Meat: Up to 6 servings per day. Examples: Cod, salmon, scallops, tuna, chicken, turkey, eggs, lean beef, bison
  • Vegetables: 4-5 servings per day. Examples: Spinach, kale, bell peppers, carrots, Swiss chard, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, Brussels sprouts, onions, cauliflower, asparagus, mushrooms 
  • Fruits: 4-5 servings per day. Examples: Pears, apples, melons, oranges, kiwi, berries, bananas, pomegranates, tomatoes, avocados
  • Low-Fat Dairy: 2-3 servings per day. Examples: Skim milk, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, low-fat cheese
  • Healthy Fats: 2-3 servings per day. Examples: Coconut, walnut oil, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, flaxseed oil
  • Sodium: 2300 mg maximum under the standard plan, or 1500 mg max for the lower-sodium meal plan

The following foods can be consumed in moderation. These are the allotted number of servings per week:

  • Legumes, Nuts, and Seeds: 4-5 servings per week. Examples: Beans, lentils, hummus, tofu, almonds, cashews, peanuts, nut butter, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Foods With Added Sugars Or Sweets: Maximum of 5 servings per week. Examples: Low-sugar muesli, maple syrup, natural granola bars
A plate of eggs and veggies.

What Foods Are Not Allowed On the DASH Diet?

Although no foods are strictly banned on the DASH Diet, the diet stresses the importance of eliminating processed foods as much as possible. In addition, sodium limits restrict certain foods given the high sodium content.

Therefore, you should avoid high-sodium foods like processed meats (hot dogs, salami, sausages), fast food, frozen dinners, Chinese takeout, and other quick-casual cuisines, most restaurant foods, french fries, mozzarella sticks, chicken nuggets, canned soups unless they are reduced-sodium versions, chips, most pretzels, and soy sauce. 

This diet also eliminates foods that are high in fat and sugar. All meats and dairy products should be low-fat versions. 

Candy and sweets must be limited to a maximum of five servings per week, with lower sugar options selected where possible.

Cottage cheese and blueberries.

Sample DASH Diet Meal Plan

Given the flexibility of the DASH Diet, a meal plan can take on many different forms, but here is a sample meal plan for weight loss:

  • Breakfast: 1 cup of plain nonfat Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup of mixed berries, 1/2 cup of low-sugar muesli, and 1 tablespoon of flaxseeds
  • Snack: 1 hard-boiled egg and a handful of snap peas
  • Lunch: 1 cup of quinoa with 4 ounces of herb-crusted grilled salmon cooked in 1 tbsp of avocado oil, 1/2 cup of roasted Brussels sprouts, 1 cup of fresh spinach, and 1/2 cup of cherry tomatoes.
  • Snack: 1/2 cup of no salt added tuna fish with 1/2 cup of baby carrots and celery sticks, and 4 low-sodium whole-grain crackers
  • Dinner: 4 ounces of chicken breast roasted with 1/2 tbsp. of olive oil, 1 small baked sweet potato topped with 1/4 cup of nonfat Greek yogurt, garden salad with 1 cup of arugula, mixed veggies, 1/4 cup of walnuts
  • Snack: 6 ounces of low-fat cottage cheese with blueberries 

Ultimately, the DASH Diet can help you establish lifelong healthy eating habits, teach you the importance of reading food labels, and help you learn appropriate serving sizes, all of which can improve your eating habits and weight management for life.

In addition to your eating habits, exercise can also contribute to your overall health. To try out some HIIT workouts for a full-on calorie-burn session, click here!

A person running up stairs.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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