High blood pressure is a common health condition that many people have today. It is estimated that nearly half the adult U.S. population has high blood pressure. (1) High blood pressure usually doesn’t show any symptoms, but it is a significant risk factor for heart disease—the leading cause of death in the United States. (2) In this article, we will talk about the best foods for high blood pressure and what foods to avoid for high blood pressure.
What Is High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a condition in which the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries is consistently too high. The body relies on the circulatory system to deliver oxygenated blood to all its organs and tissues. (3)
When your heart beats, it creates pressure that moves blood through the blood vessels to distribute to tissues and organs. This pressure, referred to as blood pressure, is the result of two forces:
- Systolic pressure, which occurs as blood pumps out of the heart and into the blood vessels
- Diastolic pressure, which is created as the heart rests between heartbeats
These are the two forces that are represented by numbers in a blood pressure reading (i.e., 120/80 mmHg). The first number is the systolic reading, and the second is the diastolic reading. The abbreviation mmHg stands for millimeters of mercury, the unit used to measure blood pressure.
To learn more about high blood pressure, check out our article “High Blood Pressure 101: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment.”
How Does Diet Affect Blood Pressure?
Many factors can affect your blood pressure—your lifestyle, level of exercise, stress levels, drugs, or medications you consume. However, one of the biggest factors that affect blood pressure is diet.
Certain foods can directly impact blood pressure, either helping to raise or lower blood pressure. However, there are two important nutrients to understand when it comes to diet and blood pressure: sodium and potassium.
Sodium is a mineral that is found in many foods. It is an essential nutrient needed by the body for normal muscle and nerve functions. It also helps to keep body fluids in balance. Most table salts are made from sodium chloride, so salt used for flavoring foods usually contains sodium. The words “sodium” and “salt” are also commonly used interchangeably—however, salt is only 40% sodium and 60% chloride. (4)
Potassium is another essential mineral needed by your body to function correctly. Like sodium, potassium is an electrolyte that helps to maintain normal muscle and nerve functions. It also helps your heartbeat stay regular and helps to move nutrients into cells and waste products out of cells. (5)
Sodium helps maintain fluid outside of the cells, such as in blood and interstitial fluid. Potassium helps to maintain levels of fluid inside cells. While both are necessary for health, these minerals have an antagonistic relationship. The more sodium you consume, the more fluid is retained outside cells. The more potassium you consume, the more fluid is retained inside cells. Likewise, when sodium levels rise, potassium levels fall, and vice versa. (6)
The kidneys help to maintain the right balance of electrolytes. For example, when potassium levels rise, the kidneys excrete more sodium, and when potassium levels drop, they excrete more potassium. Still, the kidneys rely on adequate amounts of these nutrients from diet to properly maintain this balance.
So, why is this relevant to blood pressure?
Salt makes your body hold onto water. When you consume too much salt, the extra water in your blood means there is extra pressure on your blood vessel walls, which raises your blood pressure. (7) This is why high-sodium diets constitute a significant risk factor for high blood pressure and heart disease. To reduce this blood pressure, it is essential to consume adequate amounts of potassium in your diet and to limit your salt intake.
Potassium helps to lower blood pressure as it helps balance out sodium levels in the body. Therefore, diets low in potassium can also increase the risk of high blood pressure. Too much potassium, however, is also not healthy as it can lower blood pressure beyond healthy levels. Therefore, it is important to try to have a healthy balance of sodium and potassium in the diet, and this can be done simply by eating a variety of whole foods—especially fruits and vegetables—and limiting your salt intake.
This sounds simple enough, but the standard American diet is extremely high in sodium, and most people consume far too much of it. Sodium is used as a preservative in many foods, as well as a food additive for flavoring. Sodium is exceptionally high in processed and packaged foods, fried foods, fast foods, and processed meats. Many people today consume large amounts of these foods—chips, crackers, deli meats, bacon, sausages, hot dogs, burgers, french fries, fast food, etc. Conversely, many people consume far too few potassium-rich foods—namely fruits and vegetables.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for sodium is less than 2,300 mg per day, with an ideal number being closer to 1,500 mg. (8) Americans, on average, however, eat about 3,400 mg of sodium per day—over twice the ideal amount.
On the other hand, the RDA for potassium is 4,700 mg. (9) The average American, however, consumes about 2,500 mg per day—meaning most Americans are not getting nearly enough potassium in their diet. (10)
If you want healthy blood pressure, you need to ensure you get adequate amounts of potassium and sodium in your diet and do not consume too much or too little of either nutrient.
What Foods to Avoid for High Blood Pressure?
So, with this foundational information about sodium and potassium, we can now discuss the bad foods for high blood pressure and what foods you should limit or avoid in your diet. Most of these are high-sodium foods. However, it is also important to note that foods high in saturated or trans fats can also affect your blood pressure. These foods are high in cholesterol and can cause plaque to build in the arteries, making it more difficult for your heart to pump blood through your circulatory system.
Foods to Avoid for High Blood Pressure:
- Table salt
- High-sodium condiments (ketchup, soy sauce, barbeque sauce, etc.)
- Foods high in saturated fats
- Foods high in trans fats
- Fatty meats
- Fried foods
- Fast foods
- Canned, frozen, and preserved foods
- Deli meats and cured meats
- Salted snacks
To name a few common foods that fall into these categories:
- French fries
- Hot dogs
- Onion rings
- Fried chicken
- Chicken strips
- Potato chips
- Vegetable oil
- Frozen Meals
What Foods Are Good for High Blood Pressure?
The worst foods for blood pressure are foods high in sodium. Conversely, the most healthy foods for high blood pressure are foods high in potassium. It is recommended to try to get potassium from food and not supplements. Too much potassium can also be harmful, but the body is much better able to regulate nutrients from whole foods, and the risk of overconsumption is much less from food than supplements.
Some high-potassium foods that can help lower blood pressure include:
- Beet greens
- Coconut water
- Raw Milk
In addition to these foods high in potassium, certain compounds can also help reduce blood pressure. One compound, in particular, is nitric oxide, which can be found in numerous foods and herbs, such as:
- Swiss chard
- Ginkgo Biloba
Nitric oxide is a substance known to widen blood vessels, which can help to improve blood flow and reduce blood pressure. (11) L-arganine, an amino acid, is also converted into nitric oxide by the body, so foods rich in L-arganine can also be beneficial for blood pressure.
High-potassium foods and foods with nitric oxide are among the best natural foods for high blood pressure. However, it is more than just the foods themselves; how you eat also plays a role. Aim to eat moderate amounts of whole foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, and keep your sodium levels low. To do so, you should pay closer attention to the nutrition facts on food product labels. It might surprise you how many foods contain high levels of sodium.
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a condition in which the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries is consistently too high. Many factors can affect your blood pressure, but diet is among the most significant.
To understand the relationship between diet and blood pressure, it is important to understand the minerals sodium and potassium and how they influence blood pressure. Sodium causes the body to hold onto water, making blood circulation more difficult, causing blood pressure to rise. Potassium, on the other hand, can lower sodium levels in the body, helping to reduce blood pressure.
Both nutrients are essential, and it is important to avoid getting too much or too little of either. This can largely be done by eating a variety of whole foods and keeping your sodium intake low. In addition to diet, it is important to focus on other factors for managing blood pressure—like exercise, stress levels, medications etc. You can learn more about this in our article “Blood Pressure 101: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment.”
If you are concerned that you may have high blood pressure or are seeking treatment, consult with your doctor for the best medical advice and treatment methods.