Have High Blood Pressure? Don’t Eat This

Reduce these foods in your diet to lower—or prevent—high blood pressure.

Medically reviewed in January 2022

Updated on January 27, 2022

If you have high blood pressure, you’re likely aware that the foods you eat (or don’t eat) can affect your blood pressure. What you may not know is 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.”

While a number of factors raise your risk of atherosclerosis (or, hardening of the arteries), stroke, and heart disease, gaining control of your blood pressure is a first step in helping to reduce these risks.

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 and advises people to limit other 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 more than others. We talked to Bennett about the top foods to avoid.

Sodium
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 percent, 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 up the flavor of your foods, sans the saltshaker.

Added sugars
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 per day; for men, the ideal upper limit is 150 calories (9 teaspoons).

Soft drinks, candy, sugary cereals, desserts, and fruit drinks are common food culprits.

Bennett calls soda one of the worst offenders: “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. Instead of soda, stick with plain, carbonated or unsweetened flavored water, the AHA recommends. Other ways to cut back:

  • Get rid of the sugar bowl altogether.
  • Use fruit, like strawberries and bananas, to sweeten cereal, oatmeal, and smoothies.
  • Experiment with spices such as cinnamon and ginger to enhance the flavor of foods without the sugar.

Alcohol
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, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. Excessive drinking increases your risk for high blood pressure, alcoholism, stroke, and obesity.

The problem with drinking too much is two-fold, Bennett explains: “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.”

Article sources open article sources

Kat Long, American Heart Association News. Lower your sodium, and blood pressure will follow. Feb. 15, 2021.
American Heart Association. Added Sugars. Reviewed Nov. 2, 2021.
American Heart Association. Suggested Servings from Each Food Group. Last reviewed November 1, 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Top 10 Sources of Sodium. Last reviewed February 26, 2021.
American Heart Association News. Limit low-calorie sodas and drinks, and stick to water instead, researchers advise. July 30, 2018.
Mayo Clinic. DASH diet: Healthy eating to lower your blood pressure. June 25, 2021.
Mayo Clinic. Alcohol: Does it affect blood pressure? January 16, 2021.
Cleveland Clinic. Why a Sweet Tooth Spells Trouble for Your Heart. April 6, 2017.

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