As we all know, our diet holds enormous sway over our health, for good or for ill. What we put in our mouths has the power to make us feel awesome or awful, and to both cause and even cure certain diseases. One common condition that can be aggravated or improved with diet is hypertension, or high blood pressure.
When it comes to controlling hypertension with diet, specific foods and nutrients can make a significant difference, as can overall patterns of eating. Let’s explore the best ways to curb high blood pressure with the foods we eat.
How Specific Nutrients Affect Blood Pressure
While a variety of modifications exist to temper BP with diet, the most classic starting point is sodium reduction. If you’ve ever been to a cardiologist, you’ve probably heard this recommendation—and it’s true that a low-sodium diet proves effective for achieving healthy blood pressure (1). But you may have left your doctor’s office wondering why exactly this is. What is it about those flavorful little white crystals that could wreak so much havoc on your cardiovascular system?
To understand sodium’s impact on blood pressure, it’s helpful to think of your blood vessels as delicate pipes. When too much sodium enters the blood stream through the diet, it does what salt is famous for: attracts water. This excess of fluid coursing through the blood vessels puts increased pressure on the walls of arteries and veins, eventually causing damage.
If you’re looking to decrease your BP, cutting back on sodium is a surefire method. Time to get your label reading groove on! The American Heart Association recommends that adults with healthy blood pressure limit sodium to 2,300 mg/day, and people with hypertension to just 1,500 mg/day—so it’s important to check nutrition labels for sodium content (2). It may be a challenge at first to break up with sodium, but many people find their tastes gradually adjust, so that foods that used to taste well-seasoned eventually seem overly salty.
Another nutrient that can affect your BP is fiber. While we may associate the indigestible carbohydrates in beans and broccoli more with our bathroom business, they actually have a surprising part to play in heart health, with fiber intake linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (3). More specifically, a meta-analysis of available research revealed that increasing dietary fiber could contribute to the prevention of hypertension (4).
The likely explanation for this is twofold. First, soluble fiber binds to cholesterol particles in your digestive system, flushing them out (pun intended) before they can enter the bloodstream and do damage to your blood vessels. Intriguingly, the scientific understanding of blood cholesterol is changing from the era of simply “don’t eat too many eggs.” Where experts once believed that eating cholesterol raised blood cholesterol, evidence now shows that fiber intake may actually matter more. Additionally, fiber promotes diversity in of the gut flora of your digestive tract, which research increasingly links to healthy blood pressure (5).
The daily value of fiber for men is 38 grams, and 25 grams for women—but most Americans don’t get anywhere close to these numbers, with an average daily intake of about 15 grams (6). To up the fiber in your diet, reach for whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, or consider taking a fiber supplement.
Saturated and Trans Fat
Just like our understanding of the relationship between dietary cholesterol and blood pressure is changing, so too are scientific beliefs about saturated fat’s role in hypertension. The ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s saw a low-fat craze fueled by the conviction that fat (especially saturated fat) caused heart disease and stroke–but this concept has become controversial, as more current research calls this connection into question (7). While the jury is still out on the definitive relationship between saturated fat and blood pressure, another fat has certainly earned its reputation as a dietary bogeyman: trans fat.
Study after study confirms that trans fat consumption increases blood pressure (8). The reason? Trans fat lowers your good cholesterol and raises your bad cholesterol. This perfect storm of imbalance can lead to excess buildup of arterial plaque, the nasty gunk that narrows the arteries, increasing blood pressure. Trans fat also has confirmed links to various cancers, type 2 diabetes, and all-cause mortality, so you’d do well to steer clear of it for health in general (9, 10, 11).
Foods to Avoid
If the above nutrients can worsen blood pressure, it only makes sense that you’d want to avoid low-fiber, high-sodium, high saturated and trans fat foods. For better BP, limit processed foods as much as possible, as they tend to contain little fiber and lots of sodium and trans fat. (Check labels for hydrogenated oils, as these are the source of trans fat.) Restaurant meals are other common offenders. By doing due diligence with checking menus and nutrition info online, you make better choices when dining out.
If you have your ear to the ground on nutrition trends, you may have also heard rumors about a connection between diet soda and blood pressure. Can your favorite bubbly drink cause hypertension? Probably not. According to the Mayo Clinic, the evidence doesn’t support the idea of diet soda contributing to increased BP (12).
Diet Plans to Reduce Blood Pressure
Though specific nutrients impact blood pressure, overall dietary patterns may be just as important to managing this condition. Here’s a look at the best diets for hypertension.
DASH or Mediterranean Diet
With an acronym that means Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, you can bet that the DASH diet is an excellent option for bringing down BP numbers. In fact, it was created with this aim by researchers at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in 1992. Since that time, an enormous body of research has proven that the diet meets its goal. In one study, people who followed it for four months without even adding exercise lowered their blood pressure by 11.2 points systolic (the upper BP number) and 7.5 points diastolic (the lower BP number) on average (13). In January 2018, U.S. News and World Report rated it the number one diet for heart-health (14).
With its emphasis on fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and lean meats, the DASH diet bears many similarities to the Mediterranean diet. So it’s not surprising that the Mediterranean diet also has proven benefits for blood pressure. Several studies have confirmed that a Mediterranean diet reduces blood pressure, especially when it includes plenty of extra virgin olive oil (15).
Since the DASH Diet and the Mediterranean diet can help regulate blood sugar as well as blood pressure, if you suffer from diabetes as well as hypertension, you’ll get a double whammy of health benefits by adopting either.
What About Keto and Other Low-Carb Diets?
It takes little more than a glance through a popular magazine to see that low-carb diets continue their reign of popularity these days. The keto diet, with its extreme carbohydrate reduction, has many consumers singing its praises for its rapid weight loss effects. But while this eating plan may be top dog in the world of weight loss (and may even help achieve healthier blood sugar in diabetics), it’s probably not a friend to your blood pressure. In fact, because of its high fat, low carb structure, the keto diet can make it extremely difficult to get enough fiber—and all too easy to get too much saturated and trans fat. Talk to your doctor or registered dietitian if you’re looking to make a low-carb diet work with hypertension.
Putting it in Perspective
Though dietary changes can nearly always help bring BP numbers down, diet may not always have caused your hypertension in the first place (even svelte celebrities like Angelina Jolie have admitted to suffering from the condition) (16). Other factors like genetics, race, and age have strong correlation with the development of this condition. So if you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension, it’s probably best not to leap to any conclusions about the hows and whys, blaming yourself for past mistakes. Instead, focus on the steps you can take to reduce your risks with lifestyle modification, especially your diet.
To learn how to personalize YOUR own diet based on YOUR individual needs, check out the 131 Method.