If you’ve been told you have high blood pressure (also called “hypertension”) lifestyle changes can help to lower your blood pressure. An eating plan called the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is a dietary pattern that can improve your blood pressure. Since it’s an overall well-balanced, healthful diet, the DASH diet has been named the #1 best diet overall by US News.

Here are the basics of the DASH diet.

Reduce sodium intake:

This is the most commonly known part of eating to help your blood pressure. But it’s really only part of the picture – more on that in a minute. The effect of sodium on blood pressure varies, but in general, if you have high blood pressure, are over age 50, or have diabetes or kidney disease, you would likely benefit from lower sodium. If you think that because you don’t use a salt shaker on your food you can skip this section, you need to know that 97% of the salt in our diet is what is already found in food! Especially foods you eat that are in a box, can, package, or from a restaurant. If you have high blood pressure, you need to keep your sodium intake to less than 2000 mg per day or less. Just to give you an idea of what that looks like, there are 2400 mg of sodium in a teaspoon of salt. But since most of your intake comes from packaged food, it is crucial that you read labels of those foods when you choose to eat them, but it’s important that a majority of the food you eat is food without labels (produce in particular!). In case you think this is a life sentence to bland foods, please know that there are a lot of ways to flavor foods that don’t include salt!

Practical tips to reduce sodium in foods:

  • In general, make gradual changes and know that as you adjust salt intake, your taste buds will adjust and you will learn to enjoy foods with less salt.
  • Use herbs, spices, and salt free blends like Mrs. Dash or other flavored blends.
  • Also remember that acidic foods, like vinegar or lemon/lime juice can add flavor without added sodium.
  • Don’t forget to add some heat! Spices like cayenne pepper powder or fresh peppers added to foods can add a lot of flavor, and might even add a small boost to your metabolism.
  • Also think about sautéing onion or garlic (or both!) as a base for foods to add flavor and nutrients.
  • Rinse canned foods to lower the sodium.
  • Buy low- or reduced sodium versions of foods.
  • Remember that even foods that are not “salty” like breakfast cereals and bread can have sodium, so check all labels!

Increase fruits and vegetables
Vegetables and fruits add a lot of vitamins, minerals and fiber to your diet. Added potassium and magnesium can be especially beneficial for blood pressure, and some studies show that these minerals may be just as important as reducing sodium. Be sure to get a variety of colors of vegetables, including leafy green vegetables like spinach, as well as cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, and yellow and orange vegetables like sweet potatoes, yellow squash and carrots. Consider replacing a meal with a green smoothie to your day to increase your intake of veggies and fruits.

Increase calcium in your diet
Low or non-fat dairy or dairy substitutes like fortified almond, soy or rice milk can help lower blood pressure because of the high calcium. Don’t forget that calcium is also found in the plant world, including in chia seeds (300 mg in 2 tablespoons, the same amount in 1 cup of milk or fortified milk substitute), bok choy, a delicious green leafy vegetable commonly used in Asian cooking, which has 150 mg in 1 cup, as well as tofu, if prepared in calcium (258 mg per 1/2 cup) and figs, which has 150 mg in 1/2 cup of dried figs.

Go easy on the alcohol  
Excessive alcohol can increase your blood pressure. So keep your drinking to a moderate level which is up to 1 drink a day for women, or up to 2 drinks a day for men. A drink is:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1  1/2 ounces of 80-proof whiskey

Physical activity
Aim for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, or 2 1/2 hours of moderate activity per week. You also need to add weight training/resistance exercise to maintain muscle mass, which can increase your metabolism and help with weight loss.

Weight loss
The DASH diet will likely help you lose weight, because it is lower in calories. One study showed participants lost an average of 19 pounds on the DASH Diet. Weight loss helps with blood pressure. It also helps reduce sleep apnea, which is important, because sleep apnea can worsen high blood pressure.

If you want to read all the details from the National Institute of Health, there is a 20 page PDF about the high blood pressure here.