Considering all the dangers of high blood pressure (including increased risk for heart attack, stroke and dementia), we definitely want to do everything we can to keep our blood pressure levels under control. But are we?
Unfortunately, one surprisingly simple step—eating the right foods—consistently gets ignored as an effective technique for controlling blood pressure.*
Of course everyone knows that a low-sodium diet helps some people maintain healthy blood pressure levels. But there’s a lot more to blood pressure control than avoiding that bag of potato chips, extra dash of soy sauce or a crunchy dill pickle (just one dill pickle contains about 875 mg of sodium, or nearly 40% of recommended daily sodium intake).
What most people are missing out on: With the right combination of blood pressure–controlling nutrients, you often can avoid high blood pressure altogether…or if you already have the condition and are being treated with medication, you may be able to reduce your dosage and curb your risk for troubling side effects, such as fatigue, depression and erectile dysfunction.
The best foods for blood pressure control…
EAT MORE BANANAS
Bananas are among the best sources of potassium, a mineral that’s crucial for blood pressure control. A typical banana contains about 450 mg of potassium, or about 10% of the amount of potassium most people should aim for each day.
Potassium works like a “water pill.” It’s a natural diuretic that enables the kidneys to excrete more sodium while also relaxing blood vessels—both functions help control blood pressure.
Scientific evidence: In a large study of nearly 250,000 adults published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, people who increased their intake of potassium by 1,600 mg daily were 21% less likely to suffer a stroke than those who ate less.
Kiwifruit also is a concentrated source of potassium with more than 200 mg in each small fruit.
Recommended daily amount of potassium: 4,700 mg. A good potassium-rich breakfast is oatmeal made with soy milk (300 mg), one cup of cantaloupe (430 mg), one cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice (496 mg) and one cup of coffee (116 mg).
Other good potassium sources: Potatoes (purple potatoes have the most), avocados, pistachios and Swiss chard.
Good rule of thumb: To control blood pressure, try to consume three times more potassium than sodium.
PILE ON THE SPINACH
Even if you eat plenty of bananas, all of that potassium won’t lower your blood pressure unless you also get enough magnesium. It is estimated that about two-thirds of Americans are deficient in magnesium—and while magnesium supplements might help in some ways, they do not reduce blood pressure. Only magnesium from food—such as spinach, nuts, legumes and oatmeal—offers this benefit due to the nutrients’ synergistic effect.
Recommended daily amount of magnesium: 500 mg. One cup of cooked spinach provides 157 mg of magnesium.
Also good: Two ounces of dry-roasted almonds (160 mg).
DIP INTO YOGURT
Calcium helps the body maintain mineral balance that regulates blood pressure. Dairy products, such as yogurt, contain a milk-derived protein that works like a natural ACE inhibitor (one of the most common types of blood pressure medications) and prevents the constriction of blood vessels that raises blood pressure.
Important: Stick to low-fat or no-fat yogurt, milk and cheese—the saturated fat in whole-fat dairy products appears to cancel the blood pressure–lowering effects. In addition, opt for “plain” yogurt to avoid the added sugar that’s found in many brands of yogurt. If you don’t like the taste of plain yogurt, add a little granola, honey, nuts, seeds, fresh berries or banana.
For a tasty “pumpkin pie” snack: Add plain canned pumpkin, walnuts, pumpkin pie spice and Splenda to plain yogurt, and top it with fat-free whipped cream.
Other high-calcium foods: Leafy greens and sardines (with the bones). Calcium supplements also can help keep blood pressure down, but recent research has linked them to increased cardiovascular risk. Talk to your doctor about these supplements.
Recommended daily amount of calcium: 1,000 mg for men age 51 to 70…1,200 mg for men age 71 and older, and women age 51 and older. Eating two fat-free yogurts (830 mg), one cup of cooked spinach (245 mg) and three kiwifruits (150 mg) will easily get you to your daily calcium goal.
Soy foods, including tofu, soy nuts and soy milk, may be the most underrated blood pressure–lowering foods. Research shows that people who regularly eat soy can reduce their blood pressure as much as they would by taking some medications. Soy increases nitric oxide, a naturally occurring gas that lowers blood pressure.
Helpful: If you can’t get used to the taste (or texture) of tofu, drink chocolate soy milk. An eight-ounce glass has 8 g of soy protein. Unsalted, dry-roasted soy nuts are an even richer source with about 10 g in a quarter cup.
Recommended daily amount of soy: 20 g to 25 g of soy protein. This translates to two to four servings of soy nuts or soy milk. Women at high risk or who are being treated for breast, ovarian or uterine cancer should discuss their soy intake with their doctors—it can affect hormone levels that can fuel these cancers.
SIP RED WINE
Too much alcohol increases risk for high blood pressure—as well as heart disease and stroke. In moderation, however, red wine relaxes arteries and reduces risk for diabetes, a condition that often increases blood pressure. White wine and other forms of alcohol also reduce blood pressure, but red wine is a better choice because it contains more heart-protecting antioxidants known as flavonoids.
You’ll get significant flavonoids from wines with a deep red color, such as cabernets. Specifically, grapevines that face harsher sun exposure and nutrient deprivation produce more flavonoids—cabernet sauvignon tops the list.
Red wine also is high in resveratrol, another antioxidant. One glass of red wine contains enough resveratrol to stimulate the body’s production of nitric oxide. Pinot noir wine has more resveratrol than other types.
Recommended daily limit for red wine: No more than two glasses for men or one glass for women.
For people who can’t drink alcohol, purple grape juice has some flavonoids and resveratrol but doesn’t contain the full benefit provided by red wine.
SLOW BREATHING LOWERS BLOOD PRESSURE
You’ve probably heard that yoga, meditation and other forms of relaxation can reduce blood pressure.
An even simpler solution: Merely breathing more slowly, for just a few minutes a day, can do the same thing—and research shows that for some people, combining slow breathing with relaxation techniques can be as effective as drug therapy.
What to do: Once a day, take a little time to slow your breathing. Breathe in deeply for 10 seconds, then breathe out at the same rate. Repeat the cycle for 15 minutes.
Or try Resperate, an electronic breathing device that helps you synchronize your breathing ($300, www.Resperate.com).
*In addition to smart eating habits, a blood pressure–controlling action plan includes regular exercise (ideally, 30 minutes of aerobic activity, such as brisk walking or swimming, at least five times a week) and a stress-reducing regimen.
Update: A revised version of this article was posted on July 9, 2013, to correct the information about proteins in dairy products.