Having your doctor raise their eyebrows when looking over your charts isn’t exactly the greatest feeling. Having them tell you to lay off the salt (and all the salty foods you love like ramen and popcorn) because your blood pressure is too high? Even worse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 million adults have high blood pressure (nearly one in three of adults). And that’s a BFD: Per the American Heart Association, high blood pressure puts strain on your heart, putting you at a greater risk for developing a heart attack or having a stroke.
Lifestyle habits like exercising and quitting smoking can help, but giving your diet a revamp is key to combatting hypertension (the fancy term for high blood pressure), too. So now comes the big question: What exactly can you eat? Listed here are six healthy foods that lower blood pressure, according to current science and research. Consider this your handy go-to guide to use when meal planning.
Scroll down for a list of foods that help lower blood pressure—and see what to avoid.
One of the best dietary habits you can make when trying to lower your blood pressure is eating foods high in potassium. Why? According to the American Heart Association, potassium helps counteract the effects of sodium (which can increase blood pressure in some people) while also easing tension in your blood vessels. The average adult should be getting 4,700 milligrams of potassium a day. One food that can help you get there in a major way: spinach. One 100-gram serving of raw spinach offers 558 mg of potassium.
You can’t talk about potassium without mentioning bananas. Bananas are the OG potassium source, with 487 mg of the stuff, making them another win for lowering blood pressure. And a small 2015 study found that people with hypertension who ate two bananas a day for 20 days had significantly decreased blood pressure.
3. Lima beans
Lima beans are a major potassium source that often go overlooked, but one cup of canned beans has 530 mg of potassium (more than a banana). Combine your spinach and lima beans’ potassium powers by incorporating the pulses into your salad.
There is some evidence suggesting that dairy consumption can play a part in lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of hypertension (although some studies are starting to challenge that association). Just be sure to check out the nutrition panel when you’re shopping, since some cheeses are high in sodium and saturated fats, which can negate those health benefits.
5. Olive oil
There’s a reason why the Mediterranean diet is a favorite among cardiovascular doctors. A diet with moderate olive oil consumption can lower blood pressure in hypertensive people thanks to all the polyphenols.
6. Dark chocolate
Halle-freaking-lujah, you don’t have to give up chocolate for the sake of your health. Studies have shown that even mild consumption (1-2 bars a week) can significantly lower blood pressure. Just go for dark over milk and choose a candy bar as minimally processed as possible so you aren’t getting any added sugar or salt.
The antioxidants in blueberries are good for more than your brain. A small 2019 study in the UK found that people who consumed 200 grams of blueberries per day (in a drink) experienced lower blood pressure, comparable to what happens with blood pressure medication. The researchers believe that it was the anthocyanins in the berries that contributed to the cardiovascular perks. More research needs to be done, but it’s still pretty exciting.
Foods to avoid if you have high blood pressure
Now the not-so fun part. While there are certainly lots of foods to embrace as part of a blood pressure-lowering diet, there are definitely others that a doctor would likely tell you to avoid if you have high blood pressure. It should be noted that the below foods do not cause high blood pressure, but in people who already have high blood pressure, they could make the issue worse. And be sure to talk with your doctor before making any major dietary change.
Doctors usually recommend that people with high blood pressure cut back on foods high in salt. This can come in form of deli meat, processed foods, pickled foods, or even just your own salt shaker habits. This absolutely doesn’t mean you’re doomed to have bland, flavorless meals. Instead, use it as an opportunity to experiment with the hundreds of herbs and spices out there, from basil to garam masala.
People with high blood pressure might also want to think about their alcohol habits. There’s a strong correlation between drinking alcohol and high blood pressure—especially when consumed in excess. (For women, excessive drinking is defined as having eight or more drinks in a week, or four or more in one session.) So if you’re dealing with hypertension, it’s probably a good idea to scale back your happy hour libations.
The last biggie to rethink if you have high blood pressure: sugar. A 2014 study suggested that sugar could have a bigger impact on blood pressure than salt, although more research is needed on the subject. If you’re worried about your blood pressure, it can’t hurt to cut back on the added sugars in your diet that come from sweeteners and processed foods (it’s overall better for your bod anyways).
So yes, this kind of sounds like a bummer, but limiting processed foods, sugar, and alcohol and eating more heart-healthy foods is generally a good idea for everyone, whether you’re looking after your blood pressure or not. Plus, dark chocolate is still on the table. That’s not such a bad silver lining, is it?
This article was originally published on December 11, 2018. It was updated on February 22, 2019.
Adhering to the DASH diet can also help keep your blood pressure in check, and it has the added benefit of benefitting your mental health, too.