May is National Blood Pressure Month, a great time to start making diet and lifestyle changes that support healthy blood pressure. According to the CDC, about 1 in 3 adults (or ~67 million people) have high blood pressure (also called hypertension). Having high blood pressure increases the workload and strain on the heart and blood vessels which can contribute to the development of heart disease and strokes. Hypertension is often called the “silent killer” because most individuals are not even aware they have it until tested at the doctor’s office. For reference, a healthy blood pressure in 120/80 mmHg or lower.

Luckily, there are things you can do to help reduce your risk for hypertension and lower blood pressure if you currently have high blood pressure. Try following these diet and lifestyle tips to support healthy blood pressure. Don’t forgot to talk to your doctor if concerned about your blood pressure and remember to get your blood pressure tested through regular medical check-ups.

 Reduce Sodium (salt):  A low sodium diet can be helpful in lowering blood pressure and associated risk for heart disease. In sodium-sensitive people, too much sodium causes fluid retention which increases blood volume and workload on the heart. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, healthy adults should be consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day and those with or at risk for hypertension should reduce this further to 1500 mg per day. To put this in perspective, 2300 mg sodium is the equivalent of about 1 tsp. table salt and 1500 mg is about ¾ teaspoon salt!  The typical American adult way over-exceeds these sodium recommendations, consuming on average more than 3,400 mg sodium per day.

The majority of sodium (about 75%!) in our diets come processed foods and restaurant foods with a much more minor amount coming from using the salt shaker at the table. Reducing reliance on process foods and cooking more at home with fresh ingredients closest to nature (fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts/seeds and meats with no added salt) can be vastly reduce sodium intake. Swapping the potato chips with fresh fruit, making brown rice from scratch instead of using a boxed rice mix and cooking at home instead of opting for take-out are examples of ways to reduce sodium intake.

Sodium can be sneaky and lurks in almost all processed foods. Even foods that would seem sodium-free like breakfast cereal usually contain added salt. The American Heart Association has identified the “Salty 6,” the top 6 foods which contribute the most sodium in the American diet. These foods include breads/rolls, cold cuts/cured meats, pizza, poultry with added salt (a lot of frozen poultry is injected with salt solution so check labels and choose fresh when you can), canned soups and sandwiches with deli meat. Compare labels and choose products that are lower in sodium, skip the salt shaker for an added sodium-lowering bonus and remember to cook more at home with whole-food ingredients.

Nutrients to Increase: The minerals potassium, calcium and magnesium are important to help regulate total body fluid (by promoting sodium and fluid release from the body) and help relax blood vessels. These actions can help reduce blood pressure and promote cardiovascular health. Potassium is found in fruits and vegetables as well as dried beans/peas, low-fat dairy products and fish. Eating low fat yogurt and drinking low fat milk or calcium-fortified milk substitutes (almond milk, soy milk etc.) are also great ways to increase calcium. Cheese is high in sodium so it’s best not to opt for cheese as a calcium source when trying to reduce sodium in ones’ diet. Magnesium-rich foods include dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fish, beans, whole grains and soybeans. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts/seeds and low-fat dairy products provides these important nutrients and promote overall health.

Lifestyle Adjustments:  In addition to dietary adjustments, lifestyle factors are also important for lowering blood pressure. These factors include achieving and/or maintaining a healthy weight, participating in 30 or more minutes of cardiovascular exercise on most days, reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption (no more than one drink per day for women, 2 drinks for men) and finding healthy ways to manage stress levels. In addition, quit smoking if this is a current habit. All these factors can help you help you lower and maintain a healthy blood pressure and promote cardiovascular health.