Like many other medical conditions, high blood pressure and diet go hand in hand. Not only does an unhealthy diet increase your risk of high blood pressure; eating the right foods (and limiting others) can decrease your chances of developing hypertension and the associated health risks. Depending on how advanced your high blood pressure is, your healthcare provider might recommend medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of both to lower your blood pressure.
In this article, I’ll cover what high blood pressure is and how diet affects it. I’ll also go over the DASH diet, other dietary options, and when you should see a doctor for hypertension.
How Diet Affects Blood Pressure
As with many medical conditions, your diet can affect your blood pressure in a few ways. In general, being overweight or obesity increases your risk factor for hypertension. If your body has excess weight, it needs more blood to deliver oxygen to your tissues and organs.
As more blood flows through your arteries, the pressure on your artery walls increases. This can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Specific dietary practices can also lead to high blood pressure, so it’s important to pay attention to your diet if you have hypertension or you’re at risk for it.
- Too much sodium: A high-sodium (salt) diet causes your body to retain fluid, which increases your blood pressure.
- Not enough potassium: Potassium helps to keep sodium in your cells balanced, so if you don’t have enough of it, you could develop high blood pressure. Dehydration can also cause low potassium, and in turn, increase your blood pressure.
- Too much cholesterol: Cholesterol, a fatty substance found in high-fat foods, can cause build up in your arteries, causing high blood pressure.
- Heavy drinking: Excessive alcohol intake can increase your blood pressure, both when you drink and in the long-term. Alcohol increases the amount of a hormone called renin, which can cause your blood vessels to constrict. In turn, you can develop high blood pressure. Alcohol also causes fluid retention, which means more blood will flow through your arteries, leading to high blood pressure.
What is a DASH diet?
While an unhealthy diet can certainly contribute to high blood pressure, hypertension is often more manageable in its early stages. Your healthcare provider may recommend lifestyle changes — like a more nutritious, heart-healthy diet — to improve your blood pressure and reduce your risk of medical outcomes like heart disease.
The DASH diet is one example of a diet that reduces the intake of unhealthy foods and emphasizes eating foods that boost your heart health and overall health.
How it works
DASH stands for “dietary approaches to stop hypertension.” Instead of calories, it focuses on nutrition. It’s a flexible, easy-to-follow way to decrease foods that could increase your blood pressure and increase foods that could reduce it.
The diet is low in sodium and saturated and trans fats and high in essential nutrients like potassium, calcium, magnesium, protein, and fiber. Along with encouraging a healthy diet, the DASH approach also encourages an overall heart-healthy lifestyle that includes physical exercise, a healthy weight, and healthy stress levels.
Studies show the DASH diet not only reduces high blood pressure; it can also reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart attack, and stroke.
What to eat
Foods to focus on in the DASH diet include:
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy
- Seeds and nuts
- Vegetable oil
What to avoid
On the DASH diet, avoid or limit foods that could increase your blood pressure, such as:
- Fatty meat (such as red meat)
- Full-fat dairy
- Sugary foods and drinks
- Sodium (often found in pre-packaged and processed foods)
Foods to Eat with High Blood Pressure
To reduce your blood pressure, focus on eating foods low in saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol. Plan your meals around eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins such as poultry and fish.
It is also good to incorporate whole grains, nuts, and low fat dairy products.
Here are some guidelines for what to eat each day.
|Food group||Daily serving||Serving sizes|
|Grains||7-8||1 slice bread|
½-1 cup cereal
½ cup cooked rice, pasta, or cereal
|Vegetables||4-5||1 cup raw leafy vegetable|
½ cooked vegetable
6 oz vegetable juice
|Fruits||4-5||1 medium fruit|
¼ cup dried fruit
½ cup fresh, frozen, or canned fruit
6 oz fruit juice
|Low fat or fat free dairy foods||2-3||8 oz milk|
1 cup yogurt
1 ½ oz cheese
|Lean meats, poultry, and fish||2 or less||3 oz cooked lean meat|
|Nuts, seeds, and dry beans||4-5 per week||⅓ cup nuts|
1 tablespoon seeds
½ cup cooked dry beans
|Fats and oils||2-3||1 teaspoon soft margarine|
1 tablespoon low fat mayonnaise
2 tablespoons light salad dressing
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
|Sweets||5 per week||1 tablespoon sugar|
1 tablespoon jelly or jam½ oz jelly beans
8 oz lemonade
Foods to Avoid
If you’d rather not follow a specific dietary approach, paying attention to certain variables in your diet can help reduce your blood pressure (and boost your overall health).
Avoid sodium (salt)
A diet high in sodium causes your body to retain water — and too much water retention puts pressure on your arteries, contributing to high blood pressure.
If you want to decrease your blood pressure, do your best to limit dietary salt.
Foods typically high in sodium include:
- Smoked or cured meats (such as bacon)
- Frozen dinners
- Canned foods with added salt (including vegetables)
- Salted nuts
- Processed cheese
- Prepackaged rice, pasta, and stuffing
- Bottled salad dressings and other marinades
In a low-sodium diet, you should also avoid adding excessive table salt to food at home. It can help to enhance your food’s flavor with more herbs and spices that don’t contain excess salt.
Aim for 2,300 mg or less of sodium each day.
Avoid added sugar
Sugar can contribute to weight gain, which is a known risk factor for high blood pressure and other metabolic diseases.
If you’re at risk for high blood pressure or you already have it, try to cut down on:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
- Cooking with sweeteners, including honey and maple syrup
The American Heart Association recommends women limit sugar intake to six teaspoons per day, while men should stick with nine teaspoons per day or less.
Focus instead on natural sugars from fruits and vegetables which have heart-healthy properties.
Avoid trans fats
Artificial fats called trans fats can contribute to hypertension by increasing cholesterol levels.
If you have high blood pressure, it’s best to limit foods such as:
- Prepackaged baked goods
- Microwave popcorn
- Frozen pizza
- Refrigerated biscuits and rolls
- Fried foods
- Stick margarine
- Non-dairy coffee creamer
Keep in mind that not all fats are harmful. Your body needs unsaturated fats, found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and fish. Saturated and trans fats are more damaging, without nutritional benefits.
In general, stick with fats that aren’t processed or paired with sugar or sodium.
When to See a Medical Provider
To maintain healthy blood pressure levels, do your best to keep up with your routine primary care visits. That way, your healthcare provider can treat your blood pressure (or recommend lifestyle changes) before it gets too high.
In general, your risk of heart disease and other medical conditions is higher the longer you have severe, untreated hypertension.
If you currently have a diagnosis of hypertension, check in with your healthcare provider if you experience high blood pressure readings that aren’t responding to treatment.
While high blood pressure isn’t an emergency on its own, untreated blood pressure can result in a hypertensive crisis, a severe increase in blood pressure that can result in organ damage.
Because high blood pressure is also linked with an increased risk of heart attack, call a healthcare provider or go to the emergency department if you experience any of the below symptoms:
- Severe chest pain
- Tightness in your chest
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in your jaw or arms
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