High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects about 45% of American adults according to the CDC.
While hypertension has a strong genetic component it can also be caused by lifestyle factors, medications, and other health conditions. Sometimes medications are used to control hypertension and it is important to follow your health care provider's guidance on using them, but there are ways to help control hypertension through diet and lifestyle.
Sodium, or salt, is a key contributor to hypertension for a lot of people. Especially for salt-sensitive groups such as African Americans, older-aged persons, and individuals with chronic kidney disease. It is recommended for Americans to reduce sodium intake to <2300 mg/day, and for salt-sensitive groups to limit their intakes to <1500 mg/day. Most salt consumed in the US is from processed foods that are made with salt, not from adding salt during cooking or at the table. Choosing more whole foods, minimally processed food, and cooking at home more will naturally decrease your sodium intake. Choose fruit, vegetables, unsalted nuts, unsalted nut butters, minimally processed cheeses like mozzarella, grilled or baked meats. Limit canned items, frozen meals, and salty snacks like chips.
Potassium helps stop the effects of sodium, so consuming more potassium and less sodium can help reduce blood pressure. They balance each other out in a way. It is recommended to consume 4.7g of potassium a day to lower blood pressure, or 2-3x as much potassium as sodium each day. Potassium can be found abundantly in potatoes, bananas, apricots, avocado, yogurt, coconut water, beans, winter squashes and spinach.
Monounsaturated fats and Omega-3 fats have been shown to help reduce blood pressure. Monounsaturated fats are a type of unsaturated fat. They are liquid at room temperature. They are found in plant foods, most commonly olive oil, canola oil, avocado, and nuts. Omega-3s are an essential fatty acid. They are commonly found in fatty fish (like wild-caught salmon), walnuts, and flax seed. If you struggle to consume these foods on a regular basis you might choose to take an omega-3 supplement.
Many studies show that when some carbohydrates and fats in the diet are replaced with protein one of the results is lower blood pressure. This can be achieved by making protein and vegetables/fruit the “star” of your meals and having the starchy carbohydrates as the side dish. In most cases, this will look like filling about 3/4ths of your plate with protein and vegetables, and the rest with starches. Protein is most abundantly found in animal products like meat, eggs and dairy. It can also be found in nuts, legumes, seeds, and protein powders.
Alcohol consumption is also associated with elevated blood pressure. For men, as little as one drink a day has shown to elevate blood pressure and in women four or more drinks a day has shown to elevate blood pressure. If you currently consume alcohol on a regular basis, and have hypertension, cutting back on the amount of alcohol you drink and getting close to these recommended amounts may help lower your blood pressure. Alcohol and hypertension also have a stronger link in people with diabetes versus people without diabetes.
An inactive lifestyle is closely associated with hypertension. Aerobics and resistance training are both recommended parts of daily life to help reduce blood pressure. It is recommended to participate in at least 90 minutes of aerobic exercise a week to reduce blood pressure. This can be split up in any form (for example: 30 minutes three times a week or 15 minutes six days a week). Walking is an accessible form of exercise for most people, but it is not the only option. Some people choose dancing in their kitchen, walking, swimming, biking, exercise classes, etc... It is also recommended to participate in two to three days a week of resistance training. When forming exercise goals, if you are new to exercise or returning after an extended break it can be best to choose small goals and work your way up from there. Even five minutes of walking a day is going to be beneficial.
Before you make changes to your diet and lifestyle evaluate what you’re already doing and what changes will benefit you the most. For example, if you are someone who currently eats an adequate amount of protein, that may not be an area you need to spend time on. No matter what changes you decide to make remember that baby steps are OK. You can start small and build on each change.
Written by Morgan Skatz RD LDN