Hypertension may sound a bit boring, but in reality high blood pressure is like a cat burglar. It can creep up on you slowly and quietly, giving off very few — if any — warning signs about the impending devastation. Most of the time you don’t realize your body has been infiltrated until you feel the fallout: a heart attack, stroke or even kidney failure.
As many as one in three American adults suffers from elevated blood pressure, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Part of the devastation occurs naturally. “As we age, our blood vessels become stiffer and increase the pressure in our arteries,” says Martha Gulati, M.D., director for preventive cardiology at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Leading a less-than-healthy lifestyle can exacerbate the problem; however, so making small lifestyle changes can help with hypertension. “For optimal health, avoid smoking, manage stress and exercise regularly,” advises Rosanne Rust, R.D.N. and co-author of DASH Diet For Dummies. “If you’re overweight, losing weight can also be an effective strategy in lowering blood pressure levels.”
One of the most overwhelmingly helpful decisions you can make is improving the quality of food you put in your mouth. “Diet has a huge effect on improving blood pressure,” Dr. Gulati says.
To revamp your eating habits, fill up on veggies, fruit, nuts, seeds, 100% whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean protein and unsweetened beverages, advises Jaclyn London, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., Nutrition Director at the Good Housekeeping Institute.
Small, quantifiable changes like the four below can help reduce risk of high blood pressure and improve heart health overall.
1. Sneak a Fruit or Veggie into Every Meal and Snack
“Consuming three to five servings of both fruits and vegetables each day, along with less sodium, may help to reduce systolic pressure by five to 13 points,” Rust says. How that looks: At breakfast, top yogurt with fresh blueberries or melon. Add a side salad at lunch and carry a banana with you as you head out the door for an easy snack. At dinner, aim to fill half your plate with your favorite fresh or frozen veggies that are sautéed, steamed, grilled or served raw in salad. Skipping fried versions can help cut back on calories and sodium from breading.
2. Skip the Salt
Cutting back on how much salt you slurp up will improve the heart health of most people with high blood pressure. Sticking to the recommended levels of 6 grams per day could provide a major boost, according to a 2014 study. Most sodium overload comes from packaged foods and condiments, like soy sauce, frozen meals, breads, snack bars and even cereals.
“I’m less concerned with the salt people add to food from the salt shaker than the salt they consume unknowingly throughout the day,” London says. She recommend looking for items that contain less than 230 milligrams of salt per serving — or 140 if you’re already on a low-sodium diet.
3. Reach for the Nuts
A handful of nuts a day may help save your heart and lower blood pressure. “One long-term study correlated consuming a Mediterranean diet rich in nuts with a 50% reduction in the incidence of stroke,” says Marla Heller, M.S., R.D., author of The DASH Diet Younger You. Nuts are not only great sources of the important minerals like potassium, calcium and magnesium, but they’re also loaded with plant-based antioxidants and amino acids.
A 1-ounce serving of any type hovers around 170 calories, and don’t worry about added flavors or salt. “Most salted nuts still meet the FDA guideline of 140 milligrams or less,” London says. “They only taste saltier due to surface salt, which means you satisfy that craving right away.” To increase your intake, try tossing a handful of nuts into a salad or stir-fry, or nosh on them straight as a crunchy snack.
4. Sip a Cup of Joe
If you’ve been shying away from coffee over the concern that it could elevate your blood pressure, you’ll probably be happy to hear otherwise. Coffee and tea are both amazing sources of antioxidants, potassium and polyphenolic compounds, which have been linked to reducing blood pressure.
While cardiologists have cautioned against caffeinated beverages in the past, the most up-to-date research currently recommends drinking caffeine in moderation to reduce risk of chronic disease. “Having about 300 to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day and may also help you power through a workout — lowering blood pressure in the long term,” London adds.
To gain the maximum benefits, try sipping on a 12-ounce latte made with low-fat milk. “When you add milk, you pump up the blood pressure-reducing nutrients with extra magnesium, calcium and potassium,” Heller says.