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Disease Prevention

How to Eat Well for High Blood Pressure

Focus on these foods and actions to lower high blood pressure today

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A diagnosis of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is common, though still scary. Nearly one in seven people worldwide has it, including one in every three adults in the United States. You have high blood pressure if either the top or bottom number (or both) in a blood pressure reading is higher than 120/80 mm Hg.

The good news: High blood pressure is both preventable and controllable, often with just lifestyle changes. And doing so diligently is a good idea since hypertension can lead to further heart disease. With high blood pressure, the force exerted on the inner walls of your arteries is persistently high, which causes the left ventricle of your heart to increase its effort in pumping blood through your system. Over time, this can cause stroke, heart attack, chest pain, kidney disease, sexual dysfunction and even vision troubles.

Following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (known as the DASH Diet) has helped thousands of people reduce or eliminate the need for hypertensive drugs. What follows is a breakdown of the foods and actions that have the most impact on your blood pressure.

What to Eat to Help Lower High Blood Pressure

In terms of nutrients, minerals — namely sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium — play the main role in the regulation of body fluids, cardiac output and blood pressure. Because of the way most people eat, we often need more of some of these minerals while limiting others. To help lower blood pressure, focus on getting more potassium, calcium and magnesium.

Foods High in Potassium

Dietary potassium and blood pressure are inversely related. This mineral can blunt the impact of sodium and most Americans don’t get close to the recommended intake of 4,700 milligrams per day. These are especially good choices:

  • Fruits: avocados, apricots, bananas, cantaloupe, grapefruit, honeydew, oranges, pomegranate, dried fruits, such as dates, prunes, and raisins, and also orange juice and grapefruit juice
  • Vegetables: butternut squash, beets, broccoli, cucumbers, mushrooms, peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, zucchini, both cooked and raw dark greens, such as spinach and kale, and tomato juice.
  • Beans: black beans, edamame, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, pinto beans
  • Fish: cod, halibut, trout, tuna

Foods High in Calcium

Men and women with higher calcium levels have a lower risk of stroke. An intake of 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams of calcium per day is recommended for people with hypertension from a variety of sources:

  • Dairy: Research shows that the peptides in fermented dairy, such as yogurt, kefir and sour cream may be most beneficial. Other high-potassium dairy choices are milk, whey protein and Parmesan cheese
  • Canned seafood: canned salmon and sardines
  • Beans: black beans, edamame (soybeans), chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, pinto beans
  • Seeds and nuts: almonds, chia seeds, celery seed, poppy seeds, sesame seeds

Foods High in Magnesium

Magnesium is a potent inhibitor of the contraction of blood vessels and plays a role in lowering blood pressure. Most adults don’t get the recommended 300 to 400 milligrams of magnesium needed each day. Get it from:

  • Leafy Greens: collard greens, kale, mustard greens, spinach, turnip greens
  • Beans: black beans, edamame (soybeans), chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, pinto beans
  • Whole grains: barley, buckwheat, oats, quinoa, whole wheat
  • Seeds and nuts: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Fish: halibut, mackerel, salmon

Foods to Reduce When You Have High Blood Pressure

  • Foods high in sodium: Several intervention studies have shown that sodium reduction — with or without weight loss — can significantly reduce hypertension. Start by cutting back on restaurant meals, including takeout and fast food, as well as packaged meal helpers/starters and packaged snacks. For people diagnosed with high blood pressure, try to limit sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day.
  • Foods high in trans fat: This type of artificial fat is so damaging that it has been banned by the FDA due to multiple studies showing its link to heart disease, inflammation, higher LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. Despite the ban, foods that contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can list 0 grams trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label. While this amount is small, it can add up quickly. Trans fats exist mostly in packaged baked goods, some margarine and vegetable shortenings, some microwave popcorns, fried fast food, non-dairy creamers, and refrigerated doughs and biscuits. If a product contains “partially hydrogenated oil” that’s a good indication it has trans fats.

Supplements That Can Help with High Blood Pressure

There are several supplements that could help lower blood pressure, especially when combined with increasing and limiting the foods listed above. Always consult your doctor before starting a new supplement.

  • Multivitamin with minerals: A good quality multivitamin that includes minerals and is designed for your gender and age group will often include many of the nutrients that support better blood pressure, including 100% of the Daily Value of B vitamins, vitamin D3, and vitamin C, and partial percentages of the Daily Value of calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Magnesium and potassium are purposely kept lower to avoid drug-nutrient interactions and calcium can’t be included at 100% in a multivitamin because it would simply be too large to swallow. For these reasons, it’s best to combine a multivitamin with eating more potassium-, calcium- and magnesium-rich foods.
  • Fish oil: The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA have been shown to be effective at improving heart-related conditions, including hypertension. The Reference Daily Intake for combined EPA and DHA is 250 to 500 milligrams. Typically, a 1,000-milligram fish oil supplement (2 capsules) will provide 300 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA.
  • Probiotic: Particularly for those who don’t consistently eat fermented dairy products, such as yogurt or kefir, a multi-strain probiotic taken for 8 weeks or longer could be beneficial at lowering blood pressure.

Have High Blood Pressure? Do This First.

If you are overweight, aim to lose 15 to 20 pounds. Research shows this will have the biggest health impact and could reduce blood pressure by up to 20 mm Hg. If you are in a normal weight range, the most impactful thing you can do is eat fewer foods high in sodium and saturated fat (see above) while eating more foods high in potassium. Eating this way could reduce blood pressure by 15 to 20 mm Hg.

What Else to Know About High Blood Pressure

There are many things that affect your blood pressure beyond what’s on your plate. Combine the above recommended changes to your diet with the following in mind:

  • Medication: Many doctors are quick to prescribe one or more antihypertensive drugs at the onset of high blood pressure. This is because several medications are very effective at lowering blood pressure, doctors know that lifestyle changes can be hard, and blood pressure tends to rise as we age. While antihypertensive drugs are beneficial, know that once you start blood pressure medication, you will likely be taking it for life. The current guidelines call for starting drug therapy at 140/90 mm Hg, but some experts recommend people over age 60 take blood pressure medication only if their readings top 150/90 mm Hg. Talk with your doctor if you are on the borderline of high blood pressure and would like to try lifestyle modifications first, and never stop taking a blood pressure medication without consulting your doctor. Alternatively, some types of medication can raise blood pressure or interfere with the effectiveness of antihypertensive drugs. These include oral contraceptives, steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, nasal decongestants and other cold remedies, appetite suppressants and some antidepressants.
  • Get moving: Find an activity — any activity — that you enjoy (biking, table tennis, gardening, hiking) and get moving. People who are less active are 30 to 50% more likely to develop hypertension than people who have consistent movement each day.
  • Stay properly hydrated: Being dehydrated has been linked to both low blood pressure (due to decreased blood volume) and high blood pressure (due to the release of vasopressin when high blood sodium levels are present). Rather than downing a lot of fluids at once, which can temporarily increase blood pressure, it’s best to sip small amounts of fluids throughout the day or spread fluid intake across meals. Aim for 64 ounces of fluids a day, and for most of that to be water.
  • Reduce alcohol: For about 10% of the population, hypertension is the result of too-high alcohol consumption, and a three drink-per-day average is the threshold for when alcohol negatively affects blood pressure. Men diagnosed with high blood pressure should limit alcohol to two drinks or less per day. Women with high blood pressure should limit to one drink or less per day, which is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.
  • Decrease stress: This is easier said than done, but by actively working to remove, limit, or manage sources of stress in your life you can reduce your blood pressure. Now you have a potential life-saving reason to create some healthy boundaries.
  • Quit smoking: Smoking is linked to increased blood pressure, and there is no safe amount of cigarette smoking.

Try our sample one-day meal plan to control high blood pressure.