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Salads are among the recommended foods in the DASH diet. 10’000 Hours/Getty Images
  • Experts say the DASH diet can help people with stage 1 hypertension lower their blood pressure.
  • The DASH diet is a daily eating plan that includes fruit, vegetables, nuts, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats.
  • Experts say people who are starting a DASH diet should make changes slowly as they adjust their daily eating habits.
  • They recommend you check food labels to see how much salt and sugar products contain.

Changing your diet could have the most significant impact on reducing high blood pressure.

That’s according to a new simulation study that used the latest evidence from clinical trials and meta-analyses on the effects of lifestyle changes on stage 1 hypertension.

Stage 1 hypertension is typically treated with lifestyle changes rather than medication.

The research findings will be presented this weekend at the American Heart Association’s Hypertension Scientific Sessions 2022.

The researchers’ findings suggest shifting toward a DASH diet may provide the greatest benefit to lowering hypertension compared with other lifestyle changes. Additionally, they estimated that adopting a DASH diet may prevent 15,000 heart disease events such as heart attack and stroke among men and 11,000 such events among women.

The other lifestyle changes examined included common complementary treatments for hypertension such as increasing physical activity, sustaining weight loss (if necessary), and moderating alcohol consumption.

Overall, the researchers said lifestyle changes to reduce systolic blood pressure to below 130 mm Hg may prevent 26,000 heart attacks and strokes and reduce healthcare costs over the next 10 years.

The study has not been peer-reviewed or published yet.

The DASH diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.

It’s considered a dietary pattern geared toward lowering or maintaining healthy blood pressure. It’s supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute as a way of preventing and managing hypertension.

Food groups in the DASH diet include:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Whole grains
  • Lower fat dairy products
  • Lean meats, poultry, and fish
  • Nuts, seeds, and beans
  • Heart-healthy oils and fats

The DASH diet also recommends limiting or avoiding the consumption of red meat, high sodium foods, added sugars, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, an inclusive plant-based dietitian in Stamford, Connecticut, and owner of “Plant Based with Amy,” says the research shows that the DASH diet does indeed help heart health and decreases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Amy Bragagnini, MS, RD, CSO, an oncology nutrition specialist at Trinity Health Lacks Cancer Center in Michigan and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says the DASH diet was one of the first things she learned in her initial training 20 years ago and the diet is still going strong today.

However, while the health benefits are plentiful, Bragagnini says she finds it can be challenging for people to make the shift.

Nutrition experts say it’s best to make small changes and avoid trying to change your entire diet overnight.

Instead, try the following steps for a more sustainable shift toward healthier eating.

Take inventory

Bragagnini says the first step she recommends is taking an honest inventory of your everyday food and beverage intake.

Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Approximately how many servings of fruits and vegetables do I eat each day?
  • How much total sodium do I consume?
  • How many times do I eat red meat in a week?
  • How many grams of added sugar do I take in each day?

Check food labels

Check food labels over the course of a few days, suggests Bragagnini.

This will help you get a fair idea of how much sodium and added sugar you are consuming.

“Now become aware of the recommendations,” she told Healthline. “For someone without hypertension, the American Heart Association suggests you limit your sodium intake to no more than 2,300 mg per day. They also recommend you limit your added sugar intake to 25 grams per day for women and 36 grams per day for men.”

Watch out for ‘added’ salt and sugar

“While you are checking food labels, be sure to take into account how much actual salt and sugar you are using in your cooking and meal preparation,” says Bragagnini.

Examples of how quickly it adds up, says Bragagnini, include:

  • 2,300 mg of sodium in one teaspoon of salt
  • approximately 2,000 mg in one serving of potato chips
  • around 1,500 to 2,000 mg of sodium in one can of soup

“In addition to salt, many people add sugar to their coffee (1 teaspoon = 4 grams) and may add it to their oatmeal. It all counts,” she says.

Start with small changes

“Now that you have an idea of how much (salt or added sugar) you are already consuming, start to make small changes,” says Bragagnini.

You don’t have to make sweeping diet changes overnight, so start slow,” added Gorin.

Gorin suggests incorporating a fruit or a vegetable into every eating occasion.

Making these changes doesn’t mean eating flavorless food, she adds.

“There are so many seasonings you can use in your cooking,” Gorin told Healthline. “These include garlic and onion powder, rosemary, dried oregano and basil, paprika, and red pepper flakes. You’ll be amazed at how much flavor these seasonings add to your meals.”

Bragagnini’s suggestions for spicing things up include:

  • Season chicken with rosemary and thyme
  • Use lemon on fish to enhance flavors
  • Skip the sugar and add cinnamon/cloves in oatmeal instead
  • Try to find products with the American Heart Association “heart” symbol on them

Assess your meat consumption

Dietitians often encourage clients to lower their intake of red meat and processed meats.

This is because consuming too many of these foods can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer, explains Bragagnini.

“Once again, take inventory of how often you are consuming these foods,” she says. “If you find you are eating red or processed meats five days a week, make it a goal to reduce it to three times a week to start.”

Bragagnini’s tips for reducing red meat include:

  • Explore recipes for dishes that include chicken, turkey, fish, or that are vegetarian
  • Skip the traditional hamburger and try a burger made with ground turkey or chicken
  • Experiment with adding vegetable crumbles in place of red meat when making taco
  • Skip the meat when making chili. You likely won’t even miss it if you add a variety of beans, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, celery, and onion. And don’t forget to add some deep flavor with cumin, paprika, and chili powder.

Give yourself time to adjust

Go easy on yourself and remember to practice patience.

“It will take some time to acclimate your taste buds away from sugar and salt but with patience and planning the [American Heart Association] goals are attainable. Experiment with different spices and flavors other than salt when cooking,” Bragagnini says.

Upgrade your snack selection

“Finally, improve your snack choices,” says Bragagnini.

Choosing snacks wisely can help you reach your fruit and vegetable goals and also help you follow the DASH diet recommendations, she says.

Bragagnini’s better snack options to try include:

  • Unsalted nuts (they provide good sources of protein, fiber, and healthy fat)
  • Fruits and vegetables to increase your overall intake
  • Sliced bell peppers dipped in hummus
  • Blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries for an afternoon treat
  • Crunchy zucchini slices made in the air fryer

“A big part of why following a diet often doesn’t work out is that people feel like they must give up everything they love,” Gorin said. “Don’t give up all the foods you love.”