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.
It can be overwhelming to learn you have high blood pressure, but with medical treatment, you can decrease your risk of medical conditions like heart disease.
Depending on how advanced your high blood pressure is, your healthcare provider might recommend medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of both to reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
The important thing is to work with a medical provider if you’re worried about high blood pressure and the risks that come with it. You and your primary care provider can work together to come up with a plan for lowering 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.
What Is High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)?
Your heart is constantly pumping blood through your veins to deliver oxygen and other nutrients to your body’s tissues and organs.
Blood pressure is the pressure with which your blood pushes against the walls of your arteries. In general, your blood pressure reading will be higher the more blood you have pumping through your arteries and the narrower your arteries are.
Hypertension may not always cause symptoms, but it does increase your risk of medical issues, including heart disease.
You may be diagnosed with high blood pressure, also called hypertension, if the long-term force of your blood against the walls of your arteries is too high.
High blood pressure is diagnosed if your systolic blood pressure (the top number on the reading) is equal to or higher than 140 mmHg and your diastolic blood pressure (the lower number) is equal to or higher than 90 mmHg.
To be diagnosed with hypertension, you need a high blood pressure reading on two different days.
There are two different types of hypertension, and primary hypertension — also called essential hypertension — is the most common.
Primary hypertension doesn’t have a specific medical cause. Instead, people usually develop high blood pressure over time due to lifestyle factors like an unhealthy diet or lack of exercise.
Secondary hypertension, on the other hand, is caused by a medical condition, such as:
- Kidney disease
- Being overweight
- Thyroid problems
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Pheochromocytoma (adrenal gland tumors)
- Blood vessel defects
- Medications, including birth control, decongestants and cold drugs, over-the-counter painkillers, and certain prescription drugs
- Illegal drugs, including cocaine and amphetamines
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 obese is a risk factor for hypertension.
If you weigh more, your body 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 DASH diet?
While an unhealthy diet can certainly contribute to high blood pressure, hypertension is often reversible 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)
Other Dietary Options
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.
Track your meals
A more mindful eating approach may also help you reduce your blood pressure.
Simply tracking your meals with a journal or an app can help you pay attention to what you’re eating so you can cut back on potentially harmful sodium, fat, and sugar.
When to See a Doctor
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
How K Health Can Help
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