Forget everything that you have read about the latest “superfood” for lowering blood pressure. While it’s true that certain foods do provide this remarkable benefit, many people mistakenly assume that there must be one nutritional magic bullet that will do the job on its own.
Is it possible to control high blood pressure (hypertension) with diet alone? Yes, many people can—but only when they take advantage of the additive benefits from multiple strategically chosen foods.
Example: Suppose you eat a lot of bananas because you know that this food is high in blood pressure–lowering potassium. That’s great, but you’ll shave only a point or two off your blood pressure.
To really leverage your diet, you need to also regularly consume other foods that help control blood pressure. When combined, the nutrients in these foods work synergistically to give the greatest blood pressure–lowering effects. Then the benefits accrue quickly—for some people, a five-point drop may occur within a week.
What you may not realize: By eating the right foods, losing weight if you’re overweight and cutting sodium if you’re salt-sensitive (see below), some people can achieve blood pressure drops that equal or exceed the effects of drug therapy—with none of the side effects. And if you must take medication, these foods may allow you to use a lower dose.*
Some of the best blood pressure–lowering foods are well-known—bananas, leafy green vegetables, etc. Here are some lesser-known options to add to your hypertension-fighting diet…
• Beet juice/beet greens. As a nutritionist, I usually advise clients to eat whole foods rather than drink juices because of the extra fiber. But beet juice is an exception. It’s a concentrated source of nitrates, chemical compounds that quickly lower blood pressure.
When you drink beet juice or eat other high-nitrate foods (such as rhubarb, spinach, beet greens or chard), cells in the linings of blood vessels produce more nitric oxide, a molecule that dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.
Scientific evidence: In a study that was published in Hypertension and looked at 64 adults with hypertension (ages 18 to 85), some of the patients drank a daily 8.4-ounce glass of beet juice, while others drank a juice with the active compounds removed (the placebo).
After one month, those given the real juice had average drops in systolic (top number) blood pressure of about eight points, while their diastolic pressure (bottom number) dropped five points. Blood pressure did not drop among those in the placebo group.
You can buy beet juice in health-food stores and juice shops. Or you can make your own by blending/processing cooked beets. To liven up the flavor, add a little lemon juice, ginger or a sweetener such as stevia.
Caution: If you have kidney disease, consult your nephrologist or a registered dietitian/nutritionist who specializes in kidney disease before regularly consuming beet juice—its high potassium level could worsen this condition.
• Figs. These delicious jewels are heart-healthy because they are super-high in potassium, with 232 mg in just two fresh figs. They also have a considerable amount of fiber and polyphenols, compounds that when consumed with additional blood pressure–lowering food can reduce systolic blood pressure by up to 12 points, in some cases.
Fresh figs are scrumptious, but dried figs are easier to find in grocery stores—and many people enjoy their intense sweetness. What to try: Chop dried figs, and use them as a natural sweetener in oatmeal, pancakes, muffins or even soups.
• Hibiscus tea. If you enjoy chamomile and other herbal teas, you might like the delicate floral flavor of hibiscus tea, which is high in flavonoids, plant-based antioxidants with anti–inflammatory effects, and other heart-healthy compounds. One study, which compared hibiscus tea to captopril (Capoten), an ACE inhibitor blood pressure drug, found that the tea was just as effective as the medication.
• Pistachios. Even though most nuts are good sources of fiber, potassium and magnesium, pistachios are special because they are high in arginine, an amino acid that stimulates the production of nitric oxide (discussed earlier).
Important recent finding: A study at Pennsylvania State University found that people who ate 1.5 ounces of pistachios (about 70 nuts, unshelled) daily had drops in stress-related systolic blood pressure of nearly five points compared with those who ate nuts less than once a week.
Not fattening: Nuts are high in calories, but research has shown that people who eat them regularly actually tend to gain less weight than those who don’t eat nuts—probably because the fiber and protein in nuts help dieters feel full longer. At roughly 260 calories per 1.5 ounces, you’ll need to cut calories elsewhere to prevent weight gain but can likely do so easily because nuts give such a feeling of satiety.
• Pomegranate juice. Pomegranate juice contains many different flavonoids. The juice mimics the effects of ACE inhibitor drugs, such as lisinopril (Zestril, Prinivil, etc.), which dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure.
A recent study found that people who drank a little less than two ounces of pomegranate juice daily for a year had average drops in systolic blood pressure of 12%.
The juice is tart, so some people buy sweetened versions. My advice: Avoid the added sugar. Instead, add a little stevia or other natural sweetener. One pomegranate yields about half a cup of juice.
• White beans. Like many of the other foods described earlier, white beans are chock-full of potassium. One cup contains more than 1,000 mg of potassium. (A cup of black beans has about 800 mg.)
Potassium acts like a natural diuretic and removes sodium from the body. Many people are sensitive to sodium, which means that their blood pressure will rise if they consume too much (the standard recommendation is no more than 2,300 mg daily). Research has shown that one of the best ways to lower blood pressure is to increase your potassium–sodium ratio.
*Caution: If you take blood pressure–lowering medication, never change your dose or discontinue it without consulting your doctor.