How Diet Can Affect Your Blood Pressure

Written by DaVita dietitian, Susan Dombrowski, MEd, RD, LD

How many articles have you read or television programs have you seen that talk about the importance of eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise? Health care workers have been singing the praises of diet and exercise for many years now. That’s because research has shown that healthy eating habits can help improve blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, about one in three American adults has high blood pressure.

What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is one of the most important indicators of health. You will likely get your blood pressure checked at every doctor appointment. Many drug stores have blood pressure machines in their waiting areas so people can track their blood pressure.

Blood pressure is the pressure of the blood through the arteries as it leaves the heart and travels throughout the body. There are two numbers: systolic is when the heart pumps the blood out and diastolic is when the heart is relaxed before the next beat. When read, the numbers are shown next to or on top of one another. The systolic is the top or first number, and the diastolic is the bottom or second number.

A healthy blood pressure is considered to be less than 120/80. If you have high blood pressure, also called hypertension, or have been found to be at risk for high blood pressure, you may want to consider a few changes in your diet that may help lower your blood pressure. You may be able to avoid or minimize use of medications for blood pressure by watching what you eat.

Limit sodium to help lower blood pressure

Limit your intake of sodium. Sodium is present in many processed foods, so be sure to read nutrition labels carefully. Try to limit your sodium intake to no more than 2,300 mg each day. Avoid cooking with salt whenever possible. Take the salt shaker off the table and use other seasonings and flavorings for salt. However, ask your doctor before using salt substitutes if you have kidney disease. Not everyone with high blood pressure is salt-sensitive. You can test yourself by following a low-sodium diet for two or three weeks; then re-check your blood pressure to see if it has improved.

Limit fat to help lower blood pressure

Limit your intake of fat, especially saturated fat. Reducing the amount of fat you consume may lower your blood pressure and promote weight loss, which further reduces hypertension. Another reason to control the amount and type of fat that you eat is that high blood pressure increases the risk of arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Limit saturated fats that are in animal products such as the fat in meats, butter, cheese and whole milk products. Use monounsaturated fats such as canola oil and olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats including safflower oil, sunflower oil and soy oil in moderation.

Add healthy foods to your diet to help lower blood pressure

Studies also suggest that increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products may help reduce blood pressure. For a more structured nutritional plan based on these guidelines, you may want to become familiar with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet. This diet is based on a major study conducted by the American National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute that examined different diets and their effects on blood pressure.

What happens if I don’t keep a healthy blood pressure?

High blood pressure is the second leading cause of chronic kidney disease (CKD) after diabetes. Over time, the pressure of the blood through the tiny blood vessels of the kidneys can cause damage. By making lifestyle changes such as modifying your diet, exercising, stopping smoking and losing excess weight, you can help lower your blood pressure and avoid the complications such as kidney disease, eye disease and heart disease.

Making little changes now, such as following the dietary recommendations in this article, may help you reduce your blood pressure and enjoy better health.