By Hallie Levine, AARP January 2023
Help control your blood pressure numbers by watching what’s on your plate.
Nearly half of all adults — 47 percent — have high blood pressure, defined as anything greater than 130/80 mmHg, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those numbers rise with age, to about 70 percent of adults age 65 and older. But one of the most straightforward ways to help get yours under control is to watch what you put on your plate, advises Luke Laffin, M.D., codirector of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic.
One way to achieve this is by adopting the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which is rich in fruits, veggies, lean meats, nuts, seeds, whole grains and low-fat dairy. A 2020 review of 30 randomized controlled trials published in the journal Advances in Nutrition concluded that people who adopted the DASH diet saw significant reductions in their blood pressure, even if they didn’t already have hypertension, compared to control groups. Other, earlier research found that following the low-sodium DASH diet reduced blood pressure by about 11 points in those with hypertension. “It’s equivalent to taking one or two blood pressure medications,” points out Laffin.
To get control of blood pressure, it’s best not to focus on one specific food in particular, but to focus on an overall healthy dietary pattern instead. “All these nutrients work synergistically together,” explains Maya Vadiveloo, assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Rhode Island and vice chair of the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association. “Foods like fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy are rich in micronutrients that work together to regulate blood pressure,” she says. They also replace more harmful foods that can elevate blood pressure, like salty snacks.
But there are some specific foods that are good to include in your diet, since they are rich in the nutrients that help lower blood pressure. Here are the top foods to eat — and those to avoid.
9 great foods for controlling high blood pressure
These are rich in potassium, a nutrient shown to help lower blood pressure, says Laffin. One medium banana provides about 375 milligrams of potassium, about 11 percent of the recommended daily intake for a man, and 16 percent for a woman. The only caveat is if you also have late-stage kidney disease, notes Laffin, since you’ll need to be careful with potassium consumption. In that case, check with your doctor before loading up on bananas.
These contain resveratrol, a substance that helps relax blood vessels, says Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director of Atria New York City and host of the Beyond the Heart podcast. They’re also rich in anthocyanins, a group of plant pigments that promote heart health. A 2019 study published in the Journals of Gerontology found that people who drank a wild blueberry beverage daily for 28 days saw a 5 mmHg drop in blood pressure. An added bonus: Blueberries seem to be especially good for the brain, according to research from Rush University.
If you have high blood pressure, your doctor will tell you to avoid the saltshaker. Season your food with spices instead. A 2021 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that seasoning foods with 6.6 grams of herbs and spices a day was linked with lower blood pressure after just four weeks. The study looked at a blend of 24 different herbs and spices, ranging from basil and thyme to cinnamon and turmeric.
“What was interesting is that we didn’t even decrease sodium at all — the herbs and spices decreased blood pressure independently,” says study coauthor Penny Kris-Etherton, Evan Pugh University Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.
4. DARK CHOCOLATE
It’s rich in the flavonoid cacao, an antioxidant that dilates blood vessels and thus lowers blood pressure, points out Kris-Etherton. Look for a bar that contains 70 percent to 85 percent cacao, according to the American Heart Association, since that indicates it’s richer in flavonoids. A 2017 review of 35 clinical trials published in the Cochrane Library found that regular consumption of cocoa lowered blood pressure by about 4 points in people who already had high blood pressure. “You just need to be careful, because if you eat too much, you’ll gain weight,” says Kris-Etherton.
They’re rich in magnesium and potassium, two minerals that have been shown to reduce blood pressure, says Vadiveloo. “They’re also rich in fiber and healthy fat, which helps with cholesterol regulation, which in turn improves arterial health and thus reduces blood pressure,” she explains.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that subjects who replaced 5 percent of the saturated fat in their diet with walnuts saw a decrease in blood pressure over a six-week period. Just munch on unsalted nuts, advises Vadiveloo, or stick to nut butters, which are lower in sodium.
Eating yogurt regularly may lower blood pressure by about 7 points, according to a 2021 study published in the International Dairy Journal. “Dairy is a good source of nutrients such as calcium, potassium and magnesium,” says Kris-Etherton. All of these have been shown to help lower blood pressure.
Many yogurts are also rich in probiotics, good bacteria that may also help control blood pressure. A 2014 review published in the journal Hypertension concluded that regular probiotic consumption reduced systolic blood pressure (the top number) by nearly 3.6 mmHg, and diastolic blood pressure (the lower number) by about 2.4 mmHg. Full-fat yogurt is fine if you prefer the taste: Research suggests it won’t raise your blood pressure any more than a low-fat or no-fat version.
A 2021 Danish study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that people who consumed the highest amounts of nitrate-rich veggies such as beets and leafy greens had systolic blood pressure that was nearly 2.6 points lower on average than those who got the least amounts of these foods.
8. FATTY FISH
Fish like tuna, salmon and mackerel are all rich in a healthy fat known as omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. But they may also help improve blood pressure through indirect means, says Vadiveloo. “If you eat fish instead of animal protein high in saturated fat, like red meat, processed meat or full-fat dairy, then it can favorably affect your blood pressure as well,” she explains.
A 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that people who consumed 2 to 3 grams of two omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, reduced their blood pressure by about 2 points compared to those who didn’t.
9. WHOLE GRAINS
“They are a rich source of magnesium, especially when compared to white bread,” says Vadiveloo. A 2020 Japanese study published in the journal Nutrients found that people who frequently consumed whole grains were about 60 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure over a three-year period than those who didn’t.
6 foods to avoid for high blood pressure
1. RESTAURANT FOOD
About 70 percent of the sodium we eat comes from either packaged or restaurant food, according to the CDC. “I just saw a patient whose blood pressures were high on days where he noted he either went to a restaurant or ordered takeout like Chinese food,” Goldberg says. The best step is to limit eating out as much as possible, and if you do, ask if it’s possible to see the nutrition content (including sodium).
You can also ask that no salt be added to your meal. “You might want to just order sauce on the side to lower the salt content,” advises Goldberg. Also look for entrées that are steamed, baked, grilled, poached or roasted: These all tend to be prepared in ways that have less sodium.
It might seem like a healthy snack, given the fact that it’s rich in blood-pressure-reducing calcium, but many types of cheese are loaded with salt, says Kris-Etherton. She recommends that you stick to a low-sodium cheese such as Swiss or fresh mozzarella. It’s fine to indulge occasionally if you don’t already have high blood pressure.
Ketchup, soy sauce, bottled salad dressing, jarred salsas and mustard can all be high in sodium. Look for reduced-sodium versions or opt for lemon juice or vinegar for added flavor, advises Laffin.
4. CANNED BEANS (UNRINSED)
While beans themselves are heart-healthy and can help reduce blood pressure, the canned variety is usually loaded with salt. You can still eat canned beans, but reduce the sodium by rinsing them for about 10 seconds under lukewarm water, and then draining them for about two minutes. You’ll cut sodium by up to 40 percent, but not the other heart-healthy vitamins and minerals.
5. BAKED GOODS
Bread and rolls are number 1 on the list of the top sources of sodium, according to the CDC. A slice of bread typically has only 100 to 200 mg of sodium, but if you eat a lot of bread (which many of us do), it can add up. Try to avoid baked goods as much as possible. For example, try eating oatmeal rather than toast for breakfast, and skip the rolls at dinner; opt for brown rice or quinoa instead.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology of more than 17,000 American adults found that moderate alcohol consumption — defined as seven to 13 drinks per week — more than doubled the risk of developing hypertension. “Alcohol is toxic to the heart and can weaken its muscles,” explains Goldberg. It can also raise your blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association.