You’ve probably heard this before, but there’s no getting around it: What you eat can have a major effect on your blood pressure, for worse or for better. In fact, research shows that healthy eating — we’ll get to what that means in a minute — can lower your blood pressure and keep it there. What’s more, a blood-pressure-friendly diet doesn’t have to be an exercise in deprivation. In fact, it can be downright delicious.
One of the best-known eating plans to fight blood pressure is DASH, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and tested on thousands of people with hypertension, DASH has been shown to help bring blood pressure down to healthy levels.
The basics of the plan are exactly that — basic, and similar to what you’ll see in other heart-healthy eating plans such as the Mediterranean diet. DASH uses lots of whole grains (seven to eight servings a day); lots of fruits and vegetables (four to five servings a day, each); moderate amounts of nuts, seeds, legumes and low-fat or nonfat dairy; and small amounts (three ounces daily, maximum) of lean meat, poultry and fish. DASH is lower in fat, cholesterol and sodium than the typical American diet, and higher in potassium, calcium and magnesium — nutrients that protect against hypertension.
You can find more information on DASH as well as sample recipes here. And you can make your diet more blood-pressure friendly, starting today, with these easy steps:
Number 1: Halt the Salt
Or at least cut back. If you do only one good thing for your blood pressure, you should consume less sodium (a main ingredient of salt), says Steven Nissen, MD, chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.
Here’s why: If your blood pressure is high or rising, you’re probably salt-sensitive. That means your body does not process sodium well. Eating too much throws off the complex interlocking mechanisms that regulate your blood pressure and blood volume, which leads to a slew of problems: your kidneys retain fluid, your blood pressure and blood volume increase, and your blood vessels can get damaged in ways that contribute to chronic hypertension.
Eat less salt and your blood pressure may fall — fast, too. A study in Hypertension found that switching people with resistant hypertension (the kind that doesn’t respond to drugs) from a high-salt diet to one low in salt brought their blood pressure down an average of nearly 23 points in just a week.
Health experts recommend that you eat no more than 1,500 mg of sodium daily — the equivalent of ¾ teaspoon of salt — if you have high blood pressure or pre-hypertension. If you don’t, limit yourself to 2,300 mg. On average, American men consume 3,100 to 4,700 mg of sodium a day, while women consume 2,300 to 3,100 mg.
Sodium is present in almost all foods, so it’s easy to load up even if you never sprinkle salt over your plate. For example, a fast-food burger can top 1,000 mg of sodium. A dill pickle: 928 mg. A cup of tomato juice: 878 mg. But don’t get discouraged. Eating fresh and unprocessed foods, simply prepared, knocks down your sodium consumption by a lot. An apple has 2 mg. A potato: 5 mg. One-half chicken breast: 69 mg. A glass of water: 12 mg. For a blood-pressure-friendly dinner, throw together a simple salad, broiled or grilled chicken, and a baked potato topped with low-fat yogurt and chives.
Other sodium-saving steps:
- Buy low-salt or salt-free varieties of favorite foods. The sodium savings can be big. If you switch to the no-salt version of a popular 1 percent milk-fat cottage cheese, you cut your sodium intake from 360 mg to 50 mg per ½ cup serving.
- Get the facts. Manufacturers use labeling gimmicks to convince you that a product is healthful. Even the term “less sodium” can be misleading — less than an awful lot can still be too much. Read the nutrition facts panel, says Mira Ilic, MS, RD, LD, a clinical dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. “If it’s more than 400 milligrams of sodium per serving, you should consider it a high-sodium food.”
- Be picky about potassium. Some food manufacturers are adding potassium to high-sodium products to help counteract sodium’s effects. That’s good in a way — increasing potassium is protective. But a high-sodium food is still a high-sodium food, and there are much more healthful ways to get potassium. Good sources include bananas, cantaloupe, broccoli and pinto beans, says Ilic.
- Curb condiments. It may surprise you to learn that two popular brands of ketchup contain 190 mg of sodium per tablespoon. One high-end mustard brand has 120 mg per teaspoon. Seasoning powders, barbecue sauces and soy sauce can also be sky-high in sodium. Look for sodium-free seasonings. Better yet, try nutrient-rich herbs and spices such as oregano, thyme, tarragon, basil and dill.
Number 2: Go Easy on Meat
Cutting back on salt is a great beginning, but salt isn’t the only culprit in high blood pressure. Eat that fast-food burger and 15 minutes later your blood vessels won’t be widening, or dilating, as well as they should. Researchers suspect this is an inflammatory response triggered by the saturated fat. The result: Your blood vessels cannot relax and they become more resistant to blood flow, both of which elevate blood pressure. Burgers, and animal protein in general, cause other biochemical reactions that can inflame blood vessels, further diminishing their ability to relax. That’s why DASH emphasizes lean meats, chicken and fish in small portions and ideally no more than two or three times a week.
Number 3: Beat the Sweets
The added sugars (glucose, sucrose, fructose) in soft drinks, candy, cookies and muffins can also cause a low grade of inflammation in your body, which can affect your blood vessels. Research over the past decade has pointed toward inflammation as being the trigger that causes most forms of coronary heart disease. Americans consume an average of 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day; the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of six teaspoons for women and nine for men. Drink club soda instead of a 12-ounce cola and you eliminate eight teaspoons right there. (And a bonus: You get a big sodium savings!)
Number 4: Eat Those Magic Minerals
Along with potassium (mentioned above), magnesium and calcium are the go-to nutrients for keeping your blood vessels healthy and working properly. Almonds, cashews, spinach, oatmeal and baked potato with skin are good sources of magnesium. For a calcium boost, try low-fat or nonfat plain yogurt, salmon, tofu and sardines.