Best and Worst Foods for Healthy Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is referred to as the "silent killer," because it usually has no symptoms but can develop over many years and then lead to a life-threatening event such as a heart attack or stroke.
Blood pressure is a measurement of the force of blood flowing through blood vessels. If the force becomes too high, it raises blood pressure. It's not entirely clear what causes high blood pressure, but it is clear that certain foods can lead to higher blood pressure. Specifically, foods high in sodium. Sodium holds onto water in the body, and the extra water puts added pressure on blood vessels, causing blood pressure to rise. (Try our meal plans for healthy blood pressure.)
Gaining weight can also raise blood pressure, so pay attention to overall calorie intake, in addition to sodium, to help maintain healthy blood pressure levels.
Worst foods for healthy blood pressure
The Dietary Guidelines recommend eating no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, which is 1 teaspoon of salt. But, the American Heart Association has even stricter guidelines, recommending no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. The average American consumes 3,440 mg of sodium per day. Men consume more than women with an average of 4,240 mg of sodium per day compared to the average intake for women, which is 2,980 mg per day.
But don't throw out the saltshaker just yet. Only 11% of sodium intake in the U.S. is from the saltshaker. Most is from processed foods and eating out. Here are the biggest offenders.
According to the Dietary Guidelines, 44% of the sodium that Americans consume comes from mixed dishes—21% from burgers and sandwiches, 7% from rice, pasta and grain dishes, 6% from pizza, 6% from meat, poultry and seafood dishes and 4% from soups.
Two slices of cheese pizza can have more than 1,200 mg of sodium, nearly half the recommended daily max. Top your pizza with processed meats like pepperoni or sausage and you could be eating close to a day's worth of sodium in one meal.
Red meat, processed meat and cold cuts
Speaking of processed meats, not only are they linked to a shorter lifespan, but they're also one of the worst offenders for blood pressure and heart health, due to both sodium and saturated fat. Red and processed meats are the reason burgers and sandwiches top the list when it comes to sodium intake. These products can vary in sodium content, but here are some averages from the USDA database:
- 2 sausage links: 698 mg sodium
- 4 slices bacon: 660 mg sodium
- ½ cup pepperoni slices: 1,090 mg sodium
- 3 slices deli turkey: 783 mg sodium
Packaged grain mixes
Quinoa, brown rice and barley are heart-healthy grains packed with fiber and protein—but not if you buy them in a bag mixed with salty seasonings. Turn the bags over while shopping and check the nutrition label for sodium. Anything with a Daily Value of 20% or more is considered high in sodium. Choose products with a DV for sodium less than 20% when you can. The best option is to buy plain whole grains and season them yourself. Many brands and stores now carry shortcut options, like frozen brown rice and 10-minute barley, without added salt.
"Low sodium" or "no salt added" canned soups are the best options for healthy blood pressure. One can of minestrone soup can have over 1,500 mg sodium, more than the American Heart Association says you should consume in one day. One can of tomato soup typically has about 1,000 mg sodium.
It's no secret that traditional fast food chains like McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's serve foods loaded with salt like burgers, chicken fingers and french fries. But seemingly healthy restaurant chains like Panera, Subway and Sweetgreen, for example, serve foods laden with sodium too. Any time you eat food prepared outside your home—whether it's Panera, Chinese takeout or a fancy restaurant—you're bound to consume more salt than you would if you made it yourself. Of course salt is added to make foods tastier, but also be aware that larger portion sizes when you eat out contribute to higher sodium counts. Since many fast food restaurants list the nutrition online, check the menu before you go to pick out a lower-sodium option that you can enjoy.
Fried foods are bad news for blood pressure. They are typically full of saturated fat and also often pack in the sodium. Opt for boiled, broiled or roasted (or try your air fryer) to lessen the pressure on your vessels and heart.
Frozen dinners, even ones advertised as "healthy," are a culprit for raising blood pressure. Check the nutrition label for a Daily Value of sodium less than 20% for the meal. Meals with meat and cheese are higher in sodium. If you want to stock your freezer, buy plain frozen fruits and vegetables, which are low in sodium, as well as other single-ingredient frozen foods.
Think chips, nuts and popcorn. For healthy blood pressure, choose unsalted or reduced-sodium versions most of the time.
While two pickle spears only have about 6 calories and no fat, they typically contain more than 700 mg sodium. That's 30% of the recommended daily sodium limit and doesn't include the high-sodium sandwich you may be having alongside. Eat pickles in moderation for healthy blood pressure.
While alcohol isn't high in sodium, drinking too much alcohol over time is associated with high blood pressure. The Dietary Guidelines recommend men drink no more than two drinks per day and women drink no more than one drink per day. A drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of liquor. There is no reason to start drinking alcohol if you don't currently drink. Learn more about what happens to your body when you drink.
Best foods for healthy blood pressure
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is proven to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease compared to a typical American diet. The DASH diet, also called the DASH eating plan (as it's more a way of eating than a diet), includes eating fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, chicken, fish, beans and nuts. It's low in red meat, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods with added sugar and salt.
Potassium helps lower blood pressure by helping the kidneys flush out excess sodium. Men should consume 3,400 mg of potassium per day, and women should aim for 2,600 mg per day (2,900 mg/day if pregnant; 2,800 mg/day if breastfeeding). Potassium is listed on the Nutrition Facts panel, making it easy to see if you're getting enough to maintain healthy blood pressure levels. See our list of high-potassium foods.
Calcium and magnesium are also important nutrients for healthy blood pressure, as they help blood vessels relax.
One medium banana has 422 mg of sodium-flushing potassium. Mix bananas into oatmeal or top your toast with peanut butter and a banana for breakfast.
One medium white potato has 620 mg of potassium, while one sweet potato has 540 mg of potassium. Make your own french fries by slicing potatoes and roasting them in the oven with a little salt and other spices like pepper, paprika or rosemary. Drizzle them with olive oil for heart-healthy fats. Learn more about what makes potatoes healthy.
One cup of beets has 440 mg of potassium, while one cup of beet greens has 245 mg of potassium. Studies show that both beets and beet juice can lower blood pressure, due to their high concentration of nitrates, which help improve blood flow (learn more about the health benefits of beets).
Three cups of raw spinach delivers 475 mg of potassium, and this veggie is super versatile so it's easy to eat—make a spinach salad, scramble into eggs, throw into a smoothie, or sauté for a side dish. Leafy greens are also high in calcium and magnesium.
Beans and legumes
Beans and legumes are high in potassium and magnesium. One cup of white beans delivers 615 mg of potassium and 89 mg of magnesium. Men should get 420 mg of magnesium per day and women should get 320 mg per day. Just rinse beans if buying them canned to help reduce sodium.
Yogurt is naturally high in calcium; choose plain over flavored yogurts (and add your own fruit or a little bit of sweetener for flavor). Go for low-fat varieties most often to limit saturated fat intake. Most men and women should aim for 1,000 mg of calcium per day. Women over the age of 50 should get 1,200 mg per day. One cup of low-fat yogurt has 415 mg of calcium. Mix heart-healthy berries into plain yogurt or swap out sour cream for plain yogurt in tacos or chili.
Other tips for healthy blood pressure
- Cook food at home more often instead of eating out.
- Buy foods labeled as "low sodium," "reduced sodium" or "no salt added."
- Buy canned foods less often and opt for fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables most of the time.
- Rinse canned beans and vegetables before eating.
- Read nutrition labels and choose foods with less than 20% Daily Value of sodium per serving.
- Choose fresh meat and seafood more often than processed and packaged meats.
- Buy unsalted savory snacks like nuts.
All foods can fit in a healthy diet, even a diet to help lower your blood pressure. Limit the foods on the worst-offenders list, like pizza, sandwiches and burgers, along with foods eaten at restaurants, processed meats, frozen meals and canned soups. The DASH diet is proven to help lower blood pressure. Limit processed foods and choose whole foods most of the time, like fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, plain whole grains, beans and legumes, low-fat dairy, and low-sodium nuts and nut butters.