High Blood Pressure Diet: What To Eat And What To Avoid

Nearly half¹ of Americans are affected by high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. This condition is often difficult to detect without a doctor's diagnosis, as there are few noticeable symptoms though it can be caused by several factors.

If you have high blood pressure, you're at greater risk of having a stroke or being diagnosed with heart or kidney disease, so it's important to get this condition under control.

Everyone has a different level of risk of being diagnosed with hypertension, depending on your personal health history.

You already know that eating healthy is important, so it's easy to understand that what you eat has an effect on your blood pressure. Let's take a closer look at how your diet affects your blood pressure, what foods may cause the condition, and what foods you should add to your diet to help control it.

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Why does your diet play a role in managing high blood pressure?

If you currently have high blood pressure or are at risk of developing this condition, you may know something about how diet affects blood pressure. It's important to learn more about the correlation between diet and blood pressure to ensure you make smart choices for your health.

What we eat affects how our bodies work. It's widely agreed upon that a healthy diet consists of lean meat, plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats from plant-based sources, fish, nuts, seeds, and beans.

Even though we know what is healthy, we often reach for unhealthy foods. Besides tasting good, they are quick, readily available, and may even comfort us when we're stressed. Much of the junk food found on the grocery store shelves only satisfy us for a short time and keep us coming back for more.

But eating an unhealthy diet can lead to various problems such as diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure. What you eat absolutely affects² your blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about your personal risk of hypertension, and how you can improve your diet and lifestyle.

What foods can cause high blood pressure?

Many things can affect your blood pressure. Hypertension is often caused by a combination of factors, including family history, age, lifestyle, and stress levels. While the food you eat can be one of these factors, eating specific foods is not guaranteed to cause high blood pressure. 

However, if you're at risk of developing high blood pressure, some foods can contribute to this.

Many foods blamed for high blood pressure are high in sodium or are highly processed, but there are a few other culprits that you may not expect. Several of the main foods that may cause high blood pressure include:

Processed meats

Highly processed meat like cold cuts, bacon, and hot dogs contain a significant amount of sodium, which makes sliced chicken breast a better option for your daily sandwich.

Canned foods

Food preserved in this way like soup or stew tends to be loaded with preservatives and salt.

High-sodium snack foods

Many snack foods like potato chips, pretzels, and nuts contain added salt, so the unsalted variety is the better choice.

Deep-fried foods 

Food cooked in oil like French fries and chicken strips are often full of salt and saturated fat, which means they should be avoided altogether to prevent high blood pressure.

Red meats 

Some studies have shown that red meats may be capable of raising your blood pressure.³

Vegetable oil and margarine 

These two shelf-stable fats may differ in consistency, but contain the same dangerous⁴ trans fats. Trans fats are bad for your health, as they can increase your chances of heart and blood vessel disease, raise your bad cholesterol, and lower good cholesterol.

Table salt

Salt is found in many processed foods, and many of us keep a shaker of salt on the dinner table, which makes it easy to consume too much without even realizing it. Though it seems like a harmless flavor enhancer, it actually causes our bodies to retain extra water, increasing blood pressure. We'll discuss this in more depth below.

Alcohol 

Drinking too much alcohol can temporarily raise your blood pressure, but chronic drinking may cause your blood pressure to remain high. Avoid drinking more than three drinks in a single sitting, and cut down on your alcohol consumption altogether.

While eating these foods may not always cause high blood pressure, you should be wary if you're already predisposed to hypertension (i.e. you have a family history).

Even if you don't, keep an eye on your salt intake for a few days as you may be surprised by how much you consume without even realizing it.

Foods to avoid

Sodium

If you have high blood pressure, the main thing you want to pay attention to in your diet is sodium consumption. Sodium affects the balance of fluids in your body as you’ll retain water when you consume it, which will raise your blood pressure (the force of your blood against the walls of your arteries).

Although some salt is necessary for the body's functions as it contains important minerals such as chloride and iodine besides sodium, you should avoid over-consumption. Too much salt can cause your blood pressure to rise significantly, especially in people already diagnosed with hypertension.

Avoid the foods referred to above by choosing alternatives, like vegetable chips instead of salted snacks. While it's true that salt adds flavor, seek other ways to enhance flavor such as with herbs and spices. You may be used to salty foods, but you’ll start to recognize how salty foods are once you cut back.

Learn to look at nutrition labels to better understand the sodium content in foods. If you have high blood pressure, aim to consume less than 1,500mg of sodium daily. Cutting back even further can improve blood pressure and heart health even more.

Grapefruit

Another food to avoid when you have high blood pressure is grapefruit.⁵ Though grapefruit is a healthy choice in most situations, consuming it may interfere with the effectiveness of some medications. Grapefruit and its juice contain a chemical substance that affects the enzymes in your digestive system that can cause the medicine to enter your bloodstream too quickly, which is dangerous.

Speak with your doctor to learn what other foods may interact with your medications.

Caffeine

Caffeine can also be an issue for people with high blood pressure. While caffeine won't permanently raise your blood pressure, it can cause an acute spike.⁶

If you have high blood pressure, avoid or limit caffeinated foods and beverages like coffee, tea, energy drinks, and chocolate.

What foods are good for high blood pressure?

Eating a healthy, balanced diet high in fresh produce and low in salt and unhealthy fats like trans and saturated fat can help you keep your blood pressure in check.

Your doctor may recommend the low-salt DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. When you stick to the DASH diet, it can improve your blood pressure within a matter of weeks.

The DASH diet was developed in the 1990s and has been in use to treat hypertension ever since. It is rich in important nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It includes foods that are higher in minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium than a typical diet, and keeps sodium intake to a minimum.

Here are the proponents of the DASH diet:

  • Consume no more than 2,300mg of sodium a day and ideally less than 1,500mg a day

  • Reduce your consumption of saturated fat to no more than 6% of your daily calories (that's about 120 calories on a 2,000 calorie diet) and total fat to 27% of your daily calories, which is about 540 calories worth of fat, or 60g of fat

  • Stick to fats that are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, such as those found in olive oil, avocados, salmon, nuts, and seeds

  • Avoid white flour and pasta, and choose whole grains instead like brown rice, barley, whole wheat bread, and whole wheat pasta

  • Aim to eat at least five daily servings of fruits and vegetables rich in potassium and fiber; during meals, try to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, and reach for them at snack time

  • Beans, peas, nuts, and seeds should be consumed daily; these healthy sources of fiber and protein can serve as an alternative to meat

  • Try to consume an amount of protein daily equivalent to 18% of your total calorie intake – 90g for a 2000kcal diet. Choose lean protein like chicken, turkey, or salmon, the latter of which is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids

  • Aim to eat at least 30g of fiber every day, which will be easy to achieve if you're eating whole grains, produce, and beans

In addition, some evidence suggests that low-fat dairy products⁷ can help to lower blood pressure. Try adding low-fat milk, cheese (watch the salt!), and yogurt to your diet.

Generally, aiming to consume a mostly plant-based diet⁸ seems to be the best thing for blood pressure. Try replacing some of the meat in your diet with soy protein in the form of tofu, edamame, soy milk, or meat replacements.

Keep in mind, however, that some meat replacements can be high in salt, so always check the nutritional label.

Similar to the DASH diet, some people may follow a Nordic⁹ diet, the Mediterranean¹⁰ diet, or the Portfolio¹¹ diet. These diets may all reduce blood pressure to some extent, as they are built around a similar concept of consuming more whole, natural foods, like fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains, and avoiding processed foods and red meat.

Before starting any diet, it's important to talk with your doctor to discuss the risks and benefits.

Can your diet improve or even cure high blood pressure?

Your diet clearly plays a role in managing your high blood pressure, which may leave you wondering whether changing your diet can actually cure high blood pressure.

It may seem like a lot of effort to change your diet if it doesn’t provide any permanent benefit – some people may find it easier to take a pill every day than eat healthier.

While medication does help treat hypertension, if you stop taking it, your hypertension will return. This is because medications don't treat the root cause of the problem, and some hypertension is actually resistant to them.

In many cases, the root cause of hypertension is a genetic predisposition. While you can't change your genetic makeup, you can change your lifestyle.

The DASH diet and other similar diets have been repeatedly proven² to treat hypertension. In addition, the DASH diet also seems to lower cholesterol and prevent conditions like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and obesity. It can tackle stubborn hypertension that is not helped with medication.

The truth is, diet can significantly reduce your blood pressure if you're willing to put in the work. It can be tricky to totally revamp your lifestyle, but, for some people, it's the only way to stay healthy. It's important to remember that the food you put in your body is simply fuel. When you put high-quality fuel into your body, it will run better.

Eating fewer processed foods, lowering your sodium intake, and eating more whole grains and fruits and vegetables is a huge change for many Americans. We often rely on convenience foods, but once you're able to make these changes in your life, they can become a habit.

You can make small, healthy changes like eating fruit for snacks and dessert, cutting out red and processed meats, and eating totally plant-based for one or two days a week.

If you have hypertension or are at risk for this condition, take a good look at your diet and consider making healthy changes for the future. Diet, combined with physical activity, can help prevent chronic conditions associated with hypertension.

The lowdown

If you have high blood pressure or are at risk of developing it, it's necessary to pay attention to your diet as it can impact your blood pressure. While it may be easy and convenient to reach for junk food and processed meals and snacks, these are often loaded with preservatives and sodium, which can raise your blood pressure over time.

Other foods like alcohol and caffeine may temporarily raise your blood pressure, but may not have a permanent effect unless you consume them in excess. Still, if you're predisposed to hypertension, it's a smart idea to avoid these substances or limit your intake.

But while some foods affect your blood pressure negatively, there are also plenty of foods that are great if you're trying to control hypertension. In fact, a healthy diet has been proven to reduce blood pressure and reverse hypertension.

Making changes to your lifestyle and diet isn't easy, and many people find it tough when surrounded by junk food. But it may sometimes be the only way to treat hypertension. Over time, hypertension can damage our organs like our kidneys and put people at a greater risk for a life-threatening stroke.

Luckily, you can get your blood pressure under control by watching what you eat, getting plenty of physical activity, and talking to your doctor about your personal risk.

Have you considered clinical trials for High blood pressure?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for High blood pressure, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64


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