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Is high blood pressure getting to you?

You’re not alone. High blood pressure (or hypertension) is one of the most common health conditions in the United States, affecting almost half of all Americans. And while you may know that having high blood pressure puts you at increased risk for a heart attack, heart disease and other vascular conditions, you may not know there are ways to lower blood pressure on your own.

The good news is that you can begin by making some simple changes to something you do every day: eating. And there’s no need to delay – you can get started as soon as the next mealtime rolls around.

With a heart-healthy diet under your belt, you may be able to lower and manage your high blood pressure, and help reduce the need for medication. You’ll also have a great foundation to improve your heart health and well-being in even more ways.

Let’s take a look at four realistic ideas for a high blood pressure diet that can lower your blood pressure naturally. We’ll examine specific foods that can help lower blood pressure, plus what the next steps are toward better heart health.

1. Watch out for hidden salt in everyday foods

Kicking back in a movie theater recliner with a bag of crunchy, salty popcorn. Grabbing a soft, salted pretzel at a Twins baseball game on a warm summer evening. What could be better?

Your taste buds and your body crave salt. In fact, your body needs some salt to help support important heart and nerve functions. But it’s important to be careful: Too much salt is associated with high blood pressure and other heart conditions.

Salt – or sodium – can appear where you might not expect it. For example, you may know that many foods like meats, crackers, frozen meals and soups have high salt amounts. But did you also know that lots of salt often turns up in condiments like pickles, steak sauce, ketchup and mustard?

Salt levels may also be high in many canned vegetables, which can be surprising because vegetables are otherwise pretty heart-healthy. Peanut butter and cheese can also be unexpected offenders.

So, how much salt is too much? For most people, a good goal is to have no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. If you can do even less (like no more than 1,500 mg), that’s even better. Fortunately, there are some easy, practical ways to reduce salt intake in your diet.

Run the numbers and go for a low-sodium option at the grocery store

It’s an old piece of advice but still a good one: Check out the nutrition facts on what you’re buying and cooking. You’ll find sodium content listed there (along with a whole lot else), so it’s important to run the numbers at mealtime to make sure your servings aren’t going overboard on salt.

In addition:

  • Try to pick options labeled as “low sodium”. Many soups, condiments and cheeses have lower-sodium versions of the same recipes.
  • Drain and rinse canned vegetables in fresh water. This can help you get rid of the salty preservative liquid.
  • Swap out cheese for another low-fat dairy item. Low-fat milk or yogurt can be great substitution options.
  • Use fresh fruits and vegetables when you can. How food is prepared matters, and fresh foods haven’t been as processed, which means they aren’t as salty. If fresh fruits and veggies aren’t available, frozen ones work too – just double-check the nutrition information.

And here’s a bonus tip: Get rid of that saltshaker on your table.

Instead, try flavoring your food with herbs and spices, vinegar, onions or garlic. Not only will this result in a lower sodium diet, but you might also find some interesting new flavor combinations. No salt doesn’t have to mean no flavor.

Do a little menu research before eating out

There’s nothing wrong with dining out or picking up take-out. While it’s true that many restaurant foods – especially if they’re processed in any way – can have higher levels of sodium, you can still eat heart-healthy when you eat out.

Here are a few easy tips to help you make a healthier choices at restaurants:

  • Check restaurant menus ahead of time. This can help you make sure there’s something that fits your cravings and diet goals.
  • Ask your server about sodium content of certain menu items. Many times, it’s possible to ask for your meal to be prepared using less salt.
  • Skip heavy, fried foods if you hit the drive-thru. Instead choose something that’s made with fresh ingredients – or look for an alternative restaurant that offers more fresh options.

When it comes to a lower-sodium diet, remember that we’re playing the long game here. You don’t have to change everything at once. Instead, just make one or two changes every week until looking for low-sodium options becomes second nature.

2. Switch out your snack of choice for something heart healthy

Ah… the famed midnight (or morning, or afternoon) snack. Snacking can give you a quick boost of energy to get some more work done, run errands or finish up chores. There’s nothing wrong with snacking between meals, but the wrong snacks can contribute to high blood pressure.

Many snacks (especially processed snack foods) contain high levels of salt and sugar. This often means you’ll get a short-term burst of energy, but not great nutrition. These kinds of snacks include foods like:

  • Potato chips
  • Pretzels
  • Crackers
  • Microwaveable popcorn
  • Cookies
  • Donuts
  • Granola bars

Of course, there are “low-fat” or “high-protein” options like turkey jerky or protein bars out there that seem like healthy options. And they certainly can be – but you’ll need to check the labels. These foods can still have a lot of salt or sugar in them.

The good news is that there are some quick, easy and delicious ways to more salutary snacking…

Pick dark chocolate, berries or a banana instead

In addition to reading nutrition labels, consider switching up your daily treats by choosing one of these tasty alternatives:

  • Dark chocolate. Dark chocolate has many flavonoids, a natural antioxidant that can cause your blood vessels to open more widely to support better cardiovascular health.
  • Berries. Berries are a rich source of polyphenols, another kind of antioxidant that helps reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure.
  • Bananas. Bananas have a lot of potassium, which helps counteract the effects of sodium and reduces tension in your blood vessels. (Bonus: avocados and apricots are also good potassium sources and good snacking options.)

As with all things, moderation is key. Chocolate, berries and bananas still contain sugar – and you don’t want to go on a snack attack. But making smart changes to your snacking habits are easy ways to work in foods that can help reduce your blood pressure and satisfy your hunger.

3. Put some DASH in your lunch and dinner

Don’t worry – we’re not back in gym class again. While dashing is indeed a good way to get some vigorous exercise, it’s also about what you’re eating, too.

DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. It’s a high blood pressure diet specifically designed to focus on foods that reduce blood pressure – that is, foods rich in calcium, potassium and magnesium as well as low in sodium and fat.

Try one of these DASH-inspired foods

Getting started with DASH is pretty easy. Here are some simple changes you can make to start eating more foods that lower blood pressure naturally:

  • Introduce some more fruits and vegetables into your meals, especially dark green, orange and yellow ones. Broccoli, spinach, carrots, melons, avocados, tomatoes, oranges, bananas, squash and potatoes are great ways to get started. Try to focus on whole fruits and vegetables, rather than juices or oils to get the most nutrient value.
  • Substitute low-fat or fat-free dairy options for what you normally use. This includes things like milk, cheese and yogurt, where the idea is to still get the beneficial calcium without getting as much of the fat. One way could be in your daily coffee order: Ask for a “skinny” latte instead of a regular one.
  • Focus on eating good fats (unsaturated fats). Try to avoid saturated fats and trans fats, and always check nutrition labels to review what kind of fats your foods contain. Also look for lean meats, oily fish, nuts and light salad dressings. Cook with olive oil, rather than solid fats like butter. Peas and beans are also great mealtime choices: these not only have good fats, but they’re good sources of potassium and magnesium.

Remember: You don’t have to change everything all at once. Build up slowly – one way to start out is by aiming for a vegetable at every meal. Eventually, you can add more of the DASH high blood pressure diet over time.

You also don’t have to DASH alone. Get your friends or family involved so you’re all doing it together. If you need more help or suggestions, talk to your doctor.

4. Get the facts on alcohol and blood pressure

Many of us like to have a drink when we go out with friends or family. The right concoction can make a delicious dish even better or help set the mood for a fun evening. But alcohol and blood pressure don’t always mix well.

Drinking a lot can raise your blood pressure, which puts you at greater risk for a wide variety of further cardiovascular issues. So when you decide to drink, it’s important not to have too much.

How much is too much? If you’re a woman, try not to have more than one drink per day. For men, no more than two drinks per day. A standard drink is a 12 oz. beer, a 5 oz. glass of wine or 1.5 oz. of spirits.

However, if you’ve already been diagnosed with high blood pressure, your doctor may advise you on a different daily limit, or suggest you cut out alcohol completely.

And just to clear something up: Red wine isn’t necessarily good for your heart – the research is still unclear and we still suggest moderation.

Non-alcoholic drinks don’t have to be blah

If you want to reduce or eliminate alcohol, but you also want to enjoy the taste, you have options.

Non-alcoholic (NA) beers aren’t what they used to be. In fact, many NA beer options can give you that full-bodied, familiar flavor. That’s true for wine and spirits, too. And there are many delicious “mocktails” you can try.

If you’re new to the NA scene, experiment to find out what you like. Try throwing an alcohol-free dinner party where you and your guests take turns mixing up the perfect mocktail. Before long, you could create a recipe you otherwise might never have come across.

Making progress on lowering your blood pressure with diet? Here’s where to head next.

Taking control of your diet is a huge first step toward lowering and managing high blood pressure, and it’s something to be proud of. Many people start with a high blood pressure diet. And when they’re ready, take the next step with other activities that are key to bringing blood pressure down to a healthier level, including:

  • Get moving in simple, easy ways. Try to get at least 2.5 hours per week of moderate physical activity, which includes things like brisk walking, dancing, canoeing, gardening, vacuuming, sweeping and mowing.
  • Check out deep breathing or meditation. Chronic stress means higher blood pressure. Deep breathing and meditation can help reduce the effects of stress for better physical and mental health, and even just a few minutes can make a difference.
  • Investigate how to quit smoking. Stopping smoking is essential to preventing or managing high blood pressure. But it’s not easy; for help, your doctor is a great place to start.
  • Set a weight goal. Dropping even just a few pounds can start to have a positive impact on your blood pressure. But losing weight is often easier said than done; your doctor can help you come up with a personalized plan you’re more likely to stick with.

The best resource for lower blood pressure? Your doctor.

No matter the diet and lifestyle changes you choose to make, your doctor is an essential partner.

Your primary care doctor is one of your best advocates. They’ll be familiar with what will work best for your personal lifestyle, and they can work with you at regular checkups to get your blood pressure numbers and monitor the progress you’re making. They can also show you how to accurately check your blood pressure at home.

In addition, your primary care doctor can give you custom feedback based on your entire health picture. Building on the work you’ve already started on your own, they can help you identify even more realistic changes you can make to support lower blood pressure naturally.

In addition, your primary care doctor can help you build on the work you’ve already done. They can help you identify more lifestyle changes that can help lower your blood pressure naturally, and connect you with a cardiology expert for even more care.

Start lowering your blood pressure today

In many cases, high blood pressure doesn’t have to be treated and managed with drastic lifestyle changes or medication.

Diet is one of the most important aspects of managing high blood pressure – and it’s the one thing you have the most control over. Taking small steps now, can turn into big improvements and new routines.

Don’t wait to take charge of your heart health. With support from your doctor – and a little bit of determination – you may find your blood pressure coming down sooner than you think.

Don’t delay getting the heart care and answers you need

Make an appointment with a primary care doctor