The last thing you’re probably thinking about as you dig into a delicious meal is how it will impact your blood vessels—but it’s an important consideration. More than 90 percent of us will develop high blood pressure (hypertension) during an average lifespan—one-quarter of us already have it—yet smart food choices can help prevent and treat the condition, says Sheldon Tobe, MD, a nephrologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto. Ask your doctor whether you’re at risk; left untreated, high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke.
1. Eat more: “whole”-some carbs
You know that oatmeal, bran and brown rice do your body good for many reasons. Now it turns out that the fiber in these whole grains helps protect against hypertension too, says Lu Wang, PhD, of Harvard University. After she studied more than 28,000 women, Wang found that eating two to three servings of whole grains daily, over a 10-year period, dropped participants’ high blood pressure risk by up to 11 percent.
Look twice: Search for the words “whole grain” on the ingredient lists for breads and pastas. “Whole wheat” does not provide the same fiber-rich benefit.
2. Eat more: Dark chocolate (daily!)
Disease-fighting antioxidant compounds in cocoa also help regulate blood flow, researchers believe. Previous studies have indicated that high doses of cocoa can reduce blood pressure and boost mood in the short term. Yet a mere 6.3 grams of dark chocolate (just 30 calories) daily over a 4.5-month period was enough to reduce hypertension by 21 percent, according to a Journal of the American Medical Association study.
Watch your portions: Have just a small square of dark chocolate (it’s still high in calories and fat). Look for chocolate with 70 percent cocoa or higher; 99 percent offers maximum antioxidants.
3. Eat more: Catch of the day
Omega-3 supplements such as fish oil help reduce the risk of hypertension. And a new study from Harokopio University in Athens found that those who ate more than 300 grams of omega-3-rich fish every week for a decade were 13 percent less likely to have hypertension.
Order anchovies on your pizza: Small and lean fish, such as sardines and anchovies, serve up omega-3s. If you opt for canned fish, such as salmon or tuna, look for low-sodium options or rinse off added salt.
4. Eat fewer: Foods with 700 mg of sodium or more per serving
Diets high in salt lead to increased blood volume, which ratchets up the pressure on blood vessel walls. Seventy-five percent of the sodium in the average American diet comes from salt added to processed foods, according to the American Heart Association.
Slash sodium: Skip foods that list salt, sodium phosphate, or monosodium glutamate high in the ingredients. (And opt for fresh rather than boxed, pre-prepared meals.)
5. Eat fewer: Fast foods (even those healthy-menu options)
Choosing a salad instead of fries won’t counter the rocketing blood pressure effect of a double burger, according to research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. A greasy burger causes oxidative stress in cells. (Even if you skip the burger, you may end up getting high amounts of calories and fat from dressings and toppings in fast-food salads.)
Be careful when ordering: Even at “healthier” fast-food outlets, we tend to underestimate calories and order more calorie-stuffed sides (chips, cookies, pop), according to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research. Since extra pounds pack a hypertension risk, skip the sides.
6. Eat fewer: Comfort foods
Ross Fletcher, MD, chief of staff at the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C., led a five-year study that determined blood pressure is more difficult to control in winter than in summer. (Study subjects tended to gain weight during the colder months, possibly due to richer foods and lack of exercise.) Fight back by restarting your workout routine and watching meal choices.
Retrain your taste buds: Participants in the groundbreaking Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) trial—featuring a diet high in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy—saw their blood pressure decrease significantly.
7. Drink fewer: Soft drinks
One soft drink a day—even the sugar-free kind—jacked up blood pressure risk by 18 percent, according to a 2007 study published in Circulation. Its author, Harvard Medical School instructor Ravi Dhingra, says the high caramel content in some soft drinks may promote blood vessel inflammation, which in turn increases blood pressure.
8. Drink fewer: Energy drinks
High caffeine and taurine levels in energy drinks are known to elevate heart rate. Researchers behind a small U.S. study recently suggested that people with hypertension or heart disease should not imbibe the stimulants, after witnessing blood pressure spikes in a small group of healthy volunteers.