Reduce these foods from your diet to lower — or prevent — high blood pressure.
If you have high blood pressure, you’re likely aware that the foods you eat (or don’t eat) can affect your blood pressure — but you may not know just how important a role your diet plays. “In general, the majority of the high blood pressure in this country is classified as essential hypertension,” says Robert Bennett, MD, cardiologist at Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, California. “That means there's no obvious cause for it. But we think the majority of it is due to lifestyle, in particular your diet,” he says. While a number of factors up your risk of atherosclerosis, stroke, and heart disease, gaining control of your blood pressure is a first step in helping to reduce the risk.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and fish to keep blood pressure in the healthy range. Following the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which includes all of these foods, is one easy way to stay on track. According to Dr. Bennett, “the DASH diet has been shown to be effective from a scientific standpoint.”
Knowing what to eat is one thing — but there are certain foods that can elevate your blood pressure moreso than others. We talked to Bennett about the top foods to avoid:
You’ve heard it time and time again — a high-sodium diet is bad for your heart. The AHA recommends that people consume no more than 1,500 milligrams (just under 3/4 teaspoon) of sodium per day for healthy blood pressure levels. But most Americans take in over 3,400 milligrams — more than twice the recommended serving.
So where does all this sodium come from? “A majority of the sodium we get, at least 75%, is from processed foods, prepackaged foods, and eating at restaurants,” says Bennett. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) foods like deli meat, canned soups, pizza, breads and rolls, and pasta dishes are some of the biggest salt-heavy offenders.
The good news is that eating natural foods — that is, unprocessed — is the simplest way to cut sodium from your diet. “It's very hard to eat too much sodium if you eat natural foods,” says Bennett. “The numbers aren’t high at all.” Salt substitutes, fresh herbs and spices, garlic, citrus, and vinegars can help kick the flavor of your foods up a notch, sans the saltshaker.
Related: Cheat Sheet for Low-Sodium Cooking
Added sugars don’t have any nutritional benefits, but the extra calories can easily lead to weight gain. Being overweight or obese makes your heart work harder, increasing your risk for high blood pressure. Not only that but excess sugar — even if you’re not overweight — increases triglycerides.
The AHA recommends no more than 100 calories of added sugar (6 teaspoons) for most women and for men, 150 calories (9 teaspoons) per day.
Soft drinks, candy, sugary cereals, desserts, and fruit drinks are common food culprits. Bennett says soda is one of the worst. “If you give people a couple of soft drinks, you can see a temporary spike in their blood pressure.”
There’s a wide range of added sugars in processed foods. Read nutritional labels and look for names like maltose, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, and raw sugar. These are all added sugars you’ll want to avoid. If you must drink soda, try to reduce the amount you drink each week and go for sugar-free instead. Other ways to cut back: Get rid of the sugar bowl altogether; use fruit, like strawberries and bananas, to sweeten cereal and oatmeal; experiment with spices such as cinnamon and ginger to up the flavor of foods without the sugar.
Related: 6 Hidden Sources of Sugar
While moderate drinking can lower stress and blood pressure levels, overdoing it will have the opposite effect. One to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women is considered moderate. One drink is considered 12 ounces of beer, four ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. Excessive drinking increases your risk for high blood pressure, alcoholism, stroke, and obesity.
Related: How Alcohol Affects Women
Bennett says that the problem with drinking too much is two-fold: “If you overdo it, your blood pressure will go up right when you drink and it goes up over time. There's an acute effect and then there's a longstanding effect.”
The important thing is to maintain a healthy diet the majority of the time. Splurging while you’re on vacation isn’t going to give you high blood pressure, but a steady diet of poor nutritional choices will. “The effect of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or high blood sugar take years and years of chronic elevation to cause damage,” says Bennett. “If your blood pressure is under control, your blood sugar is under control and your diet is under control the vast majority of the time, then you shouldn't stress about your blood pressure going up every so often.”