The many benefits of the DASH diet

It was developed to reduce blood pressure. New research reveals the DASH diet has many more benefits.
A man eats a salad from a bowl

Nutrition plays an important role in the prevention and treatment of high blood pressure or hypertension. Healthcare professionals often recommend the DASH diet. – short for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.”

Studies have consistently shown that the DASH diet lowers blood pressure in people with both hypertension and pre-hypertension, with results in as little as two weeks. But there’s a bonus – over the last 20 years, researchers have also learned that DASH is a helpful dietary pattern for lowering cholesterol, protecting heart health, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and lowering the risk of developing certain types of cancer, too.

What is the DASH diet?

DASH was developed in 1997 and has been continuously studied for over 25 years. The dietary pattern emphasizes eating more fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, fish, poultry, nuts and legumes, and limits salt, saturated fat, sweets, and red or processed meats.

This eating pattern ensures that the diet is high in cardio-protective nutrients such as fibre, protein, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, while being lower in saturated fat, sugar and salt. The high quantities of vegetables and fruit means the diet is also filled with vitamins and antioxidants that work to quell harmful inflammation in the body. 

DASH for heart health

DASH helps lower blood pressure levels, but also helps lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and reduce inflammation, which are all risk factors for heart disease. A meta-analysis (a large study that relies on data pooled from many studies of the same subject) of over 40 previous studies found that the DASH diet was associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and stroke. 

Many of these heart-healthy effects come from the abundance of plant-based foods in the diet, including vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and nuts. But you don’t need to avoid all animal-based foods to reap the heart-health benefits of DASH. Plant-based foods form most of your plate, but DASH also includes poultry, fish, eggs, lean meat and dairy – it’s all about quantities. Learn about the exact nutrition recommendations here.

The DASH plan also includes a recommendation to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day on most days of the week, which contributes another layer of protection for your heart.

DASH vs. cancer

To add a different lens, other researchers were curious if people following the DASH diet for hypertension would find any additional benefits. Turns out that there are many! A meta-analysis of 17 studies looked at the protective effect of the DASH diet on different types of cancer, including colorectal, breast, hepatic, endometrial and lung cancer. High adherence to the DASH diet was associated with decreased mortality from all these types of cancer. 

DASH vs. type 2 diabetes

DASH is also one of the most recommended dietary patterns to help prevent type 2 diabetes. Researchers suggest it is because of the high consumption of whole grains, low-fat dairy products, yogurt and olive oil, plus getting enough fibre and magnesium. They also note the protective effect of flavonoid antioxidants from eating lots of vegetables and fruits.

The DASH diet also limits foods that contain refined sugars and refined flours, which have a high glycemic index and raise blood sugar levels. Eating lots of refined flour, sugary foods, and red or processed meat significantly increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, but the DASH diet is low in these foods, offering a protective effect. 

Beyond preventing or managing blood pressure, the DASH diet is a smart choice if you’re looking for a well-balanced eating plan that includes a wide variety of nutritious and delicious foods.