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High blood pressure — or hypertension — is a condition that occurs when the pressure within your blood vessels becomes too high.
While not considered a disease, high blood pressure is the leading cause of heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke.
Fortunately, you can treat high blood pressure and prevent or reduce the associated complications through your diet.
This article explains what to eat and avoid with high blood pressure and provides a sample high blood pressure diet menu.
What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the measure of the force of blood pushing against your artery walls.
High blood pressure occurs when this pressure is consistently too high.
When left uncontrolled, high blood pressure strains and damages your heart and the vessels that supply it and other organs with blood.
Blood pressure is usually expressed as the ratio of systolic and diastolic pressure, with the top number representing systolic and the bottom number representing diastolic.
Four categories define blood pressure readings for adults (1):
- Normal: A normal blood pressure reading is less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
- Elevated: The systolic number is between 120 and 129 mm Hg, and the diastolic number is less than 80 mm Hg.
- Stage 1 high blood pressure: The systolic number is between 130 and 139 mm Hg, or the diastolic number is between 80 and 89 mm Hg.
- Stage 2 high blood pressure: The systolic number is 140 mm Hg or higher, or the diastolic number is 90 mm Hg or higher.
Causes and risk factors
High blood pressure is known as the silent killer since you usually don’t have symptoms until it has caused severe health problems.
For this reason, you should get your blood pressure checked at least annually.
There are several risk factors of high blood pressure that may or may not be within your control.
These include (1):
- increasing age
- male sex
- physical inactivity
- overweight and obesity
- high cholesterol or triglycerides
- chronic kidney disease
- cigarette smoking
- excess alcohol intake
- use of certain medications
The more of these risk factors you have, the more likely you are to develop heart disease and stroke, especially if you eat an unhealthy diet.
High blood pressure diet
Eating a healthy diet is one of the best and most effective ways to improve your health and lower your blood pressure.
Several dietary patterns such as the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet have been proven to significantly lower high blood pressure while also promoting weight loss and decreasing the risk for heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes (2, 3, 4, 5).
These diets share many similarities in that they emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean meats while limiting alcohol and foods high in sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats.
Foods to eat
Foods to eat that lower your high blood pressure include:
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain numerous healthy nutrients that have a strong blood pressure-lowering effect including dietary nitrate, potassium, and magnesium.
As an excellent source of fiber, fruits and vegetables are also help keep you full and promote a healthy body weight (6).
Include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet and add them to every meal.
Whole grains contain all three parts of a seed — the bran, germ, and endosperm.
They are an excellent source of nutrients that can help lower blood pressure including fiber, magnesium, and B-vitamins.
Examples of whole grains include oats, rye, buckwheat, millet, barley, quinoa, brown rice, popcorn, and whole-grain and whole-wheat bread and pasta.
Dairy contains bioactive proteins that are thought to block the activity of an enzyme that increases blood pressure in the same way certain blood pressure medications work (10).
Dairy also contains nutrients known to lower blood pressure like calcium (11).
Excellent low-fat dairy options include low-fat milk, cottage cheese, and Greek yogurt.
While some research suggests plant proteins are more effective for lowering blood pressure compared with animal protein, other research suggests there is no significant difference between them (15, 16).
Lean sources of animal- and plant-based proteins include seafood, beans, peas, lentils, soy, poultry, lean beef, and pork loin.
Foods to avoid with high blood pressure
Foods to avoid that can contribute to high blood pressure include:
High sodium foods
Serving a variety of functions related to taste, texture, leavening, and shelf life, sodium is ubiquitous in foods.
While the benefit of following a low-sodium diet remains debatable for people with normal blood pressure, the evidence is clear that too much sodium is bad for people with high blood pressure or who are at risk for high blood pressure (17, 18, 19).
Foods that tend to contain the most sodium include bread, rolls, pizza, sandwiches, frozen and boxed meals, lunch meat, canned soups, and savory snacks like chips, pretzels, and crackers.
Calories from added sugars provide less fullness, which can lead to weight gain and high blood pressure.
Examples of added sugars include:
- regular soft drinks
- fruit drinks
- syrups and toppings
- condiments like ketchup and dressings
- cakes and pastries
Excess alcohol intake may increase blood pressure by constricting the blood vessels, increasing sodium and water retention, and raising levels of the stress hormone, cortisol (25).
Men should limit their alcohol intake to two drinks per day and women should have no more than one drink per day.
One-day sample high blood pressure diet menu
Here is a one-day sample high blood pressure diet menu that follows the same principles as the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
Breakfast: oatmeal cooked with low-fat milk, topped with sliced strawberries, and sprinkled with cinnamon
Snack: Greek yogurt, grapes, and a handful of walnuts
Lunch: whole-grain flatbread topped with diced chicken, chopped artichoke hearts, feta cheese, halved cherry tomatoes, arugula, and thinly sliced red onion
Snack: hummus with sliced vegetables for dipping
Dinner: oven-baked salmon with brown rice and roasted sliced carrots drizzled with olive oil
Supplements to lower blood pressure
Several supplements can significantly lower blood pressure, primarily by relaxing blood vessels and increasing blood circulation.
Beetroot powder is naturally rich in dietary nitrates.
Your body breaks down nitrate through a series of steps to form nitric oxide, which relaxes the inner muscles of the blood vessels, causing them to widen and increase circulation.
You can purchase concentrated beetroot powder to mix with water or add to a smoothie.
Aged garlic extract
Aged garlic extract is garlic that has undergone a natural aging process.
This aging process increases garlic’s concentration of beneficial nutrients beyond what’s naturally found in fresh garlic (28).
A review of 12 studies with 553 people with high blood pressure demonstrated a significant decrease in blood pressure with aged garlic extract that is similar to commonly prescribed medications for treating high blood pressure (29).
The blood pressure lowering effects of aged garlic extract has been linked to an increase in nitric oxide and inhibition of the enzyme that increases blood pressure (30).
Most studies that have examined the effects of aged garlic extract on blood pressure have used a brand called Kyolic, which you can purchase here.
L-arginine or l-citrulline
L-arginine and l-citrulline are amino acids — the building blocks of protein — that play an important role in nitric oxide production.
Is it OK to exercise with high blood pressure?
In addition to eating right, exercising is one of the best and most effective ways to lower your blood pressure (33).
Exercise lowers high blood pressure by strengthening your heart, improving blood flow, reducing stress, and promoting a healthy body weight (34).
Aim for at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like brisk walking or biking, and perform muscle-strengthening activities like weight lifting at least two days per week (35).
Most people with high blood pressure can safely exercise, but it’s still a good idea to talk with your doctor before you start any new physical activity.
The bottom line
High blood pressure is a condition where the force of your blood pushing against your artery walls remains consistently high.
Following a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins while limiting excess sodium, added sugars, and alcohol can help you lower blood pressure.
Supplements like beetroot powder, aged garlic extract, l-arginine, and l-citrulline can also lower blood pressure.
In addition to diet and certain supplements, regular exercise is an effective and safe way to lower blood pressure.