Eating the right foods, and avoiding unhealthy ones, can help keep your blood pressure in check.
If you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension, or high blood pressure, your doctor has probably advised you to make a number of lifestyle modifications, such as exercise and dietary changes. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), eating a diet of nutrient-rich, low-sodium foods can lower blood pressure naturally.
“Natural nutrients are generally more packed with good antioxidants, which may get damaged when prepared for storage,” says John Higgins, MD, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School in Houston.
Dietary Recommendations Include Prioritizing Unprocessed Foods
Dietary recommendations from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute — called the Dietary Approaches To Stop Hypertension, or the DASH diet for short — promote eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean sources of protein such as fish and poultry, beans, nuts and vegetable oils, while also limiting saturated fats, refined grains, processed foods, and added sodium.
The advantage of getting these nutrients through whole foods, rather than through supplements, is that our body is able to use them better. “A number of times when we have just separated out the one nutrient that we think is good, such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, or vitamin E, and given it as a concentrated pill, it has been shown to be either not as effective or completely ineffective when compared to the natural foods,” Dr. Higgins says.
What Is Considered High Blood Pressure?
According to the guidelines by the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, published in May 2018 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the criteria for high blood pressure are as follows:
- Normal Less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg)
- Elevated Systolic between 120 and 129 mmHg and diastolic less than 80 mmHg
- Stage 1 Systolic between 130 and 139 mmHg or diastolic between 80 and 89 mmHg
- Stage 2 Systolic at least 140 mmHg or diastolic at least 90 mmHg
- Hypertensive Crisis Systolic over 180 mmHg or diastolic over 120 mmHg, with patients needing prompt changes in medication if there are no other indications of problems, or immediate hospitalization if there are signs of organ damage
A large study of more than 9,000 patients, published in May 2021 in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that participants who got their systolic pressures below 120 mmHg saw their incidence of heart failure, heart attack, stroke, and death drop substantially in comparison with those who followed a more standard treatment plan, where the goal was to reduce their systolic pressure to less than 140 mmHg.
Lifestyle Changes Recommended for High Blood Pressure
The American Heart Association encourages people with high blood pressure to:
- Eat a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, and whole grain foods, as well as fish and skinless poultry
- Limit alcohol
- Increase their physical activity
- Lose weight
- Reduce the amount of sodium in their diet
- Quit smoking
- Manage stress
If you’re worried about your blood pressure, the first step is to see your doctor, in order to have your blood pressure checked. Then, after a discussion with your healthcare provider, it can help to start incorporating some of these foods into your meals. Your taste buds and your heart will thank you.
Potassium-Rich Bananas May Help Lower Blood Pressure
These portable, easy-to-peel fruits are low in sodium and they're also a good source of potassium, which can help to lower blood pressure, says Stephanie Dean, RD, of Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
“With certain blood pressure medication, you can have an increased need for potassium,” Dean says. “Some people could also be lacking it naturally in their diets. A lack of potassium does impact the muscles and heart rate.”
“Bananas are also full of fiber, which fills you up,” Higgins says.
To incorporate more bananas into your diet, add slices to cereal or your favorite fruit salad. Or try grilling or sautéing banana halves, then top with a small scoop of frozen yogurt.
Yogurt Provides the Calcium Necessary for Normal Blood Pressure
Yogurt is a good source of calcium — an 8-ounce serving of plain, lowfat yogurt provides 415 milligrams, per the NIH, almost one-third of an adult’s recommended daily value. Calcium deficiency can be a contributor to high blood pressure, according to Harvard Health.
“A lot of people associate calcium with something that children need, and stop focusing on calcium-containing foods as an adult, but the adult body still needs it,” Dean says.
Yogurt is a low-sodium food that’s great straight out of the container, but you can also use it as a creamy addition to a smoothie — just mix a cup with diced portions of your favorite fruit in the blender. Choose plain, unsweetened yogurt whenever possible. Nonfat, plain Greek yogurt also makes a great substitute for sour cream!
Salt-Free Seasonings Add Flavor
Adding seasonings to your food can help you cut down on the amount of salt you use. But while many of the spice blends available at the grocery store can add flavor to your dishes, they're often not low in sodium. Instead of using a premade mixture, make your own seasoning to help lower blood pressure by tossing together fresh or dried herbs and spices, which contain no salt.
For example, to flavor a healthy dish of whole-wheat pasta, mix up an Italian blend of dried rosemary, oregano, and thyme. Avoid things that have "salt" in the title, such as garlic salt and onion salt, and opt for the “powder” versions instead, which don't have added salt.
RELATED: 10 Sneaky Sodium Bombs
Cinnamon May Help Lower Your Blood Pressure
Cinnamon, in addition to being flavorful and associated with a number of health benefits, may also help reduce your blood pressure, according to a study published in April 2021 in the Journal of Hypertension.
You can sprinkle it on oatmeal, stir it into stews and chili, or use it in stick form to flavor coffee and hot cocoa.
Potassium-Packed White Potatoes May Help Lower Blood Pressure
The humble Idaho potato often gets a bad rap, but when prepared properly it can be a great source of potassium, which can help lower your blood pressure. Potatoes are also a low-sodium food and a good source of fiber, plus they’re fat- and cholesterol-free.
Split a baked potato and sprinkle it with one of your herb blends, or top with a dollop of low-fat or fat-free sour cream or plain Greek yogurt and chopped chives for a delicious, guilt-free meal or side dish.
Fresh Fish Are Part of a Heart-Healthy Diet
Many fish are a great source of lean protein while other varieties offer omega-3 fats, which some research has linked heart-health benefits, according to Harvard Health. Certain fish, such as trout, are rich in vitamin D. “People usually don’t get enough vitamin D from food, so this is one way to boost your intake,” Dean says.
A fresh fish fillet needs only minimal preparation. Keep it low-sodium by brushing on a little olive oil, sprinkling it with cracked black pepper, and baking or grilling it for a few minutes — it’s easy and flavorful.
Fiber-Filled Oat Bran Has Many Heart-Healthy Benefits
Oatmeal is a great breakfast choice if you have high blood pressure, but oat bran can provide even more health benefits, since it’s higher in fiber, which can help to lower blood pressure and improve digestive health. Oatmeal also contains soluble fiber, which has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels.
Opt for old-fashioned or steel-cut oats, which are less processed than other varieties. Keep it low-sodium and prepare your oats as a hot cereal topped with fruit or use it in pancakes. You can also add oat bran to many baked goods, such as muffins or bread.
Nutrient-Packed Lima Beans Are Superfoods to Help Lower Blood Pressure
As with most beans, lima beans are an excellent source of fiber and a good source of protein, but they also pack a bonus for people who want to lower blood pressure: They’re higher in potassium than some of their counterparts, making them a good choice for a diet for high blood pressure.
To serve lima beans, simply boil them in water until tender, then combine them with vegetables and low-sodium broth for a hearty soup, or serve cold, marinated in a zesty, low-sodium vinaigrette dressing.
Iron-Rich Spinach Is Essential for a Heart-Healthy Diet
Spinach and other leafy greens are low-sodium foods and a great way to up your intake of vegetables, an important part of a diet to lower high blood pressure. Greens are also a fairly good source of calcium — half a cup of cooked spinach provides about 9 percent of an adult’s recommended daily value, according to the NIH.
Use spinach in salads or add cut-up spinach leaves to pasta, casseroles, and other dishes. Along with being a food to help lower blood pressure, spinach is also packed with dietary fiber, iron, and vitamins A and C, making it an essential food in any diet.
Eat Flaxseed for Omega-3 Fatty Acids and to Help Lower Blood Pressure
This seed, which comes from the flax plant, is rich in flaxseed oil, which may help reduce high blood pressure due to its omega-3 fatty acid content. When crushed into flaxseed meal, it has a pleasant, nutty flavor. Grinding flaxseed (to create meal) allows your body to absorb the omega-3 fatty acids, so make sure you don’t skip this step.
To use flaxseed as a food that lowers blood pressure, stir it into fat-free or low-fat, plain yogurt, sprinkle it on hot or cold cereals for an extra nutrition boost, or add a few tablespoons to low-sodium recipes for homemade bread.
Additional reporting by Rachel Fairbank.