When it comes to controlling your blood pressure, being mindful of what you put into your body is a crucial first step. Foods that lower blood pressure not only reduce blood pressure, but eating right also helps you control your weight and avoid diabetes and other health problems that are often associated with hypertension.

Cutting Back on Sodium

You probably already know that people with hypertension cut back on salt. And it’s true. Limiting the amount of sodium (the key mineral in salt) that you consume is a cornerstone of a blood-pressure-friendly diet. The American Heart Association recommends that most adults take in no more than 1,500 mg of sodium—the equivalent of a teaspoon of table salt—each day. Yet the average American consumes between 3,000 and 6,000 mg each day. Because 1,500 mg is so much lower than the average intake, most doctors ask patients to at least limit their consumption to 2,300 mg, which is still a 50% reduction for some people.

The DASH Diet

If most Americans eat that much salt, it might seem impossible to get your intake down to recommended levels. Fortunately, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, commonly referred to by its acronym as the DASH diet, puts that goal in reach. As its name implies, DASH was initially designed by doctors concerned specifically with how to lower blood pressure naturally, but in study after study it has proved to be extremely effective at improving not just blood pressure but general cardiovascular health. It’s now considered one of the healthiest eating plans overall. In studies, people with hypertension were able to lower their systolic blood pressure by 11 mmHg and their diastolic by 5 mmHg by adhering to the DASH diet.

If you’re familiar with the Mediterranean diet (plant-based, with lots of fish, poultry and olive oil), then you have a good idea of what the DASH diet consists of. The DASH diet merely adds a low-sodium component to the already-nutritious Mediterranean eating pattern.

A typical eating plan based on a daily need of 2,000 calories might consist of six to eight servings of whole grains, up to six servings of lean meat, fish, poultry or eggs, four or five servings of vegetables, four or five servings of fruit, two or three servings of low- or nonfat dairy, and two or three servings of fats and oils. On a weekly basis, the recommendation is four to five servings of nuts, seeds and legumes and no more than five servings of sweets.

If that’s too abstract, you can instead picture a plate filled with different proportions of food from different categories. Half the plate is filled with whole fruits and vegetables. A quarter is filled with grains such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice or whole-grain pasta. And the remaining quarter contains a protein-rich food such as fish, lean meats, eggs, beans, skinless chicken or nuts. For each of the day’s three meals, picture one cup of milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese or soy milk.

Low-sodium Cooking and Grocery Shopping

Obviously, the suggestions above are mostly healthy foods, but they won’t be if you shake salt onto them or cook your meals with salt. Try keeping the saltshaker away from the table and seasoning your foods with other flavors such as garlic, onion, curry, lime juice, pepper and vinegar. Salt substitutes may be a good solution, but not if you have chronic kidney disease or are taking ACE inhibitors or potassium-sparing diuretics to control your blood pressure. That’s because most such products use potassium chloride as a substitute for salt (sodium chloride), and kidney disease or those medications can result in a dangerous buildup of potassium in the body, which can be fatal if not addressed.

Even though we so often think of reducing sodium intake in terms of not salting our food, up to 70% of the sodium we consume comes from the food we buy, not the food we cook. That’s why it’s so important to be sodium-minded when grocery shopping and in restaurants. In the supermarket, it’s quick and easy to check nutrition labels for the amount of sodium per serving. If a product contains 5% or less than the Percent Daily Value figure on the label, it’s considered low-sodium. 20% or higher is high-sodium. Bear in mind that just because a food is marketed as “low sodium” or “reduced sodium” doesn’t mean that it truly contains little sodium. Those tags may simply mean that the version in front of you contains less sodium than its original version, yet still has too much sodium to be conducive to blood-pressure control.

Here’s how to interpret sodium labeling:

“Light in sodium” or “lightly salted”Contains 50% less sodium than its original version  
“Reduced sodium”Contains 25% less sodium than its original version  
“Low sodium”Contains no more than 140 mg of sodium per serving  
“Very low sodium”Contains no more than 35 mg of sodium per serving  
“Salt-free” or “Sodium-free”Contains no more than 5 mg of sodium per serving  
“No salt added” or “Unsalted”The manufacturer has added no salt but the food may still contain sodium  

Be especially cautious about the sodium content of these foods, which we don’t always think of as “salty”: Breads, lunch meats, pizza, canned soups, burritos, chicken, cheese, canned vegetables, salad dressings and condiments.

Avoid Salt When Eating Out

Restaurant meals are notoriously salty (It’s part of what keeps customers coming back for more), so dining out can be a challenge for people trying to control their blood pressure. In fact, just three ounces of chicken nuggets may contain 600 mg of sodium, nearly half of your day’s allotment. Fortunately, chain restaurants with 20 or more locations are required by law to post nutritional information (including sodium content) on their menus for each of their standard items (Sometimes that information can be accessed on the restaurant’s website, so you can select foods that help blood pressure in advance) More and more restaurants have special menus with heart-healthy or low-sodium selections. You can also make special requests that the cooks not add salt to your meal. You’ll have better luck with that, of course, if you choose a sit-down establishment rather than a fast-food place.

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