Strategic Diets: What to Eat to Lower Your Blood Pressure

Get “the silent killer” under control.

Welcome to Strategic Diets, a deep dive into specific nutritional needs for your desired outcome—from fitness goals to personal aspirations. 

There may be no bigger wake up call than heading to your annual checkup and having your doctor look at you, eyebrows raised, and deliver the news that you have high blood pressure. Or, if he really want to scare you into action, “hypertension.”

But if that’s the only piece of bad news, count your blessings.

Unfortunately, this news is often accompanied by high cholesterol or high triglycerides, or both, which will earn you a badge with “metabolic syndrome” displayed across it. The syndrome is the name for a group of risk factors—high blood pressure, high triglycerides, a large waistline, low LDL cholesterol, and high glucose—that raises your risk for heart disease and other health problems. And you only need three to earn the diagnosis.

Back to blood pressure. So it’s elevated. What’s the big deal? High blood pressure is dangerous because it makes the heart work overtime; and since it doesn’t present any symptoms, it’s referred to as “the silent killer.” Many don’t know they have it, while it’s secretly wreaking havoc on the arteries, heart, and other organs. If that’s not enough to convince you to make some lifestyle changes, we don’t know what is.

If you have elevated blood pressure (which is defined as greater than 140/90 mmHg), you’re not alone: hypertension affects nearly 75 million Americans, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Factors that cause elevated blood pressure include stress, lack of exercise, carrying around some extra weight, drinking too much and genetics—but one of the first places to look under the hood is your diet.

Diet is such an effective method of controlling blood pressure numbers that an eating plan designed especially to do just that, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (or the DASH diet), has been ranked the top diet by US News & World Report for six years running. Over the years, studies have also shown that the diet reduces the risk of other diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Plus, it’s been shown to aid in weight loss and lower cholesterol. So even if you’re one of the lucky ones with perfect blood pressure bragging rights, there’s still some incentive to heed their advice.

Foods That Lower Blood Pressure

“Diet has a huge effect on improving blood pressure. Research on the DASH diet found a clear correlation between a diet high in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy to lower blood pressure,” said  Erin Palinski Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. “It’s believed that the key nutrients calcium, potassium and magnesium, in which the DASH diet is rich in, along with the high levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, may help to lower blood pressure.”

The diet also focuses on whole grains, lean meats, fish and poultry, and nuts and beans, making it high fiber and low to moderate in fat.

Focus on Plant-Based Foods 

Health experts have long advocated for adopting a more plant-based diet. The benefits of vegetarian meals built around whole foods are numerous, and they don’t stop short of helping to combat high blood pressure.

“To best lower blood pressure using the DASH approach, aim to consume three to five servings of vegetables and four to five servings of fruit per day along with two to three servings of low-fat dairy,” advised Palinski-Wade. “Increase your volume of these plant-based foods by adding fruits and vegetables at each meal and snack, such as adding blueberries into your morning cereal, beans into your salad, or topping your yogurt with fresh melon.”

In addition to using this broader approach to inform your diet, there are specific foods that research has shown to offer additional benefits when it comes to lowering blood pressure:

Dark Chocolate

“The flavonols in cocoa can help increase the amount of nitrous oxide in the blood, which relaxes and dilates the blood vessels, lowering blood pressure,” said Palsinki-Wade. “Studies have found individuals who consume cocoa daily are less likely to die from cardiovascular disease. But don’t select just any chocolate: Look for chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa or higher to maximize the health benefits.”

Cashews

High in magnesium and potassium, both nutrients that lower blood pressure. “One long-term study was able to correlate the intake of nuts with a 50 percent reduction in the incidence of stroke,” said Palinski-Wade.

Coffee

“While the caffeine in coffee [especially decaf] will temporarily increase blood pressure, the net effect of the beverage may contribute to lower blood pressure since it is rich in potassium,” said Palinski-Wade.

What to Take off The Menu

Limit Sodium

“Foods high in sodium should be avoided to prevent a rise in blood pressure,” said Palinski-Wade. “(Limit total sodium to 1,500 milligrams (mg) a day or less if you have been diagnosed with hypertension.” If you don’t have high blood pressure, experts advise keeping sodium intake below 2,300 mg (or one teaspoon). That means skip vending machine favorites like chips and pretzels, and high-sodium restaurant meals like that burger and fries.

Fats and Sweets

Pass on dessert. While you don’t have to cut out sweets entirely, the DASH diet recommends limiting sweet consumption to less than five times per week. When you do indulge, stick with fat-free or low-fat options like sorbets, hard candy, graham crackers or low-fat cookies. And make an effort to cut back on added sugars (which show up in some surprising places like yogurts, breads, and jarred sauces).

Fats, on the other hand, are necessary: They help your body absorb essential vitamins and boost your immune system. But too much fat increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Keep healthy fats like avocado and olive oil on the menu in proper portions (limit intake to 27 percent or less of daily calories from fat), and limit saturated fats found in meat, butter, cheese and whole milk to no more than six percent of your total calories.

Alcohol

According to research, regular consumption of alcohol elevates blood pressure (with global estimates that the attributable risk for hypertensive disease from alcohol is 16 percent). But the good news is, this increase in blood pressure is largely reversible within two to four weeks of abstinence or a substantial reduction in alcohol intake. So bailing on some of those happy hour plans can have a pretty immediate effect on sending your numbers in the right direction.

Don’t Forget Other Lifestyle Factors

While altering your diet is a great first step, it doesn’t mean you can disregard your other habits and expect to see a big difference in your blood pressure. “Combine dietary efforts with regular exercise, reduce stress, and strive to maintain a healthy weight for the best blood pressure management,” said Palinski-Wade.

But don’t think you need to jump into an intense fitness routine to get your numbers under control: research shows that low-impact exercises like walking can reduce blood pressure just as much as more strenuous activities, like running. Plus, being more active will help you keep off that winter weight and allow you to blow off steam from a stressful day at the office.

Ready to make some changes? Start by whipping up these five recipes that will combat high blood pressure.