How to lower blood pressure through diet

Abby Smith Abby Smith Health and Wellbeing Physiologist
High blood pressure increases the force on your blood vessel walls, as well as the strain on your heart. This increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke. However, even small reductions in your blood pressure can significantly reduce this risk. Abby Smith explains five ways you can lower your blood pressure through the food you eat.

Some ethnicities have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Those of South Asian or African Caribbean descent are more likely to develop high blood pressure.

Although genetics place you at a greater risk, improving your diet today can reduce your risk. Simple swaps to your diet can make a big difference to your blood pressure.

1. Check food labels

Knowing what to eat, and how much of it, can be overwhelming. Using the traffic light labels on foods can be a good place to start. Try to opt for as many green food ratings as possible.

For products without a traffic light label and when comparing between products, use the value per 100g for the lowest fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt options.

The ingredients list can also be helpful. The order of the ingredients determines their amount within the food, so foods listed first will make up the largest proportion.

2. Eat more fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables should make up just over a third of the food we eat and it is recommended to consume 5 portions of fruit and vegetable a day. However, some is always better than none.

Fruit and vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals needed for overall body health. They are high in fibre and low in calories which can help to regulate your appetite and achieve a healthy weight. Being overweight can increase your blood pressure. Fruits and vegetables are also a good source of potassium which can help to regulate fluid levels in the body and blood, helping to control blood pressure.

Every portion of fruit and vegetables than you consume reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease further. So, eating three portions will always be better than two, and five portions is always better than four. Having fruit and vegetables in your diet will provide some protection against cardiovascular disease, largely through helping to control your blood pressure.

What counts towards my 5-a-day?

It's not just fresh fruit and vegetables that count, frozen and canned options also provide one of your 5-a-day.

Frozen and canned foods are often cheaper and have a longer shelf life, helping to reduce food wastage.

Choosing canned fruit and vegetables in natural juice or water can also help you reduce your salt and sugar intake when choosing these foods.

Beans and pulses are included in your 5-a-day, but only account for one portion regardless of how much you consume. Similarly, 150ml of fruit juice is a portion, but drinking more will not contribute to any more of your 5-a-day.

What's a portion?

A portion is 80g of fruit or vegetables, which can look like:

  • 2 small fruit e.g. satsumas, kiwi, plums
  • 1 medium fruit e.g. banana, apple, orange
  • 1 slice of melon or pineapple
  • 2 slices of mango
  • 3 heaped tablespoons of cooked vegetables, pulses and beans
  • 1 handful of grapes
  • 2 handfuls of berries.

How to eat more fruit and vegetables

  • Check food labels: Some foods such as pasta sauces and soups include one of your 5-a-day
  • Bulk out your meals with vegetables: For example you could add courgette, carrots and celery to spaghetti bolognese – this will also help the meal to go further and reduce the cost as you'll need less meat
  • Keep your freezer stocked: Frozen vegetables and fruit can easily be added to meals
  • Change up your snacks: Swap biscuits, cakes or crisps for fruit and vegetable sticks
  • Use in season fruit and vegetables: These are often cheaper and taste better.

3. Eat less salt

Reducing your salt intake is one of the most cost effective ways to help you to reduce your blood pressure.

We need some salt in our diet to help our kidneys regulate water in our blood. However, excess salt can draw water into the blood, increasing blood volume and blood pressure.

Foods high in salt

Even foods that are not obviously salty may contain hidden salts. Approximately 75% of the salt we consume has already been added to food before we buy it, for example:

  • Cheese
  • Processed meats such as bacon, sausages, ham and salami
  • Crisps
  • Sauces and condiments such as soy sauce, gravy, ketchup, mustard and brown sauce
  • Stock cubes
  • Salted and roasted nuts
  • Meat pastry products
  • Bread products
  • Cereals
  • Ready meals
  • Frozen pizzas
  • Pasta sauces.

How much salt should I eat?

NHS guidelines are to consume no more than 6g of salt a day (1 teaspoon). 

When checking food labels, high salt foods contain more than 1.5g of salt, or more than 0.6g of sodium per 100g, whereas low-salt foods contain 0.3g or less of salt, or 0.1g or less of sodium per 100g.

The salt content of foods can vary widely between different brands. Some food labels may state sodium instead of salt. Sodium levels will be lower as 1g of sodium is equal to 2.5g of salt.

How to reduce your salt intake

  • Don't add salt when cooking
  • Choose low-salt options
  • Use herbs and spices to flavour food
  • Avoiding ‘salty’ flavours
  • Use unsalted butters and spreads
  • Comparing salt levels between brands and opting for the lowest option.

4. Swap saturated fats for unsaturated fats

Fat is an essential part of our diet. Fat is important for brain health, immune function and helps us to absorb nutrients from food. Without some fat in our diet, we cannot absorb all essential nutrients.

However, not all fats are equal and getting the right balance of fats in your diet can help to improve your heart health.

Saturated fats

Too much saturated fat in your diet increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Foods high in saturated fat include:

  • Red meat and processed meats such as pork, beef, sausages, bacon, ham and cured meats
  • Dairy products such as butter, cheese, cream, margarine, crème fraiche
  • Coconut oil and palm oil
  • Pies and pastries
  • Chocolate, cakes and biscuits
  • Crisps
  • Fried food and fast food.

Unsaturated fats

These fats are known as mono and polyunsaturated fats and are ‘heart healthy’ fats. These include:

  • Olive oil and rapeseed oil, as well as spreads made with these oils
  • Oily fish
  • Avocados
  • Nuts and seeds.

Opting for healthy fats over saturated and trans fats can help to improve your cholesterol profile. This is important as the combination of high blood pressure and high cholesterol can accelerate the development of a heart attack and stroke.

How much fat should I eat?

When checking food labels, high fat foods contain more than 17.5 g of total fat, and 5g of saturated fat per 100g, whereas low fat foods include 3g or less of total fat, and 1.5g or less of saturated fat per 100g.

Although healthy fats are a necessary part of our diet, they are energy-dense and it's important to be mindful of portion sizes to prevent weight gain and increases in blood pressure.

How to reduce your intake of saturated fats

  • Cook with olive oil instead of butter
  • Bake, grill or steam foods instead of frying
  • Swap creamy and cheesy sauces for tomato-based sauces
  • Snack on a handful of nuts instead of a bag of crisps
  • Freshly prepare foods instead of buying fast food.

5. Eat less sugar

Eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain, an increase in blood pressure and a greater risk of heart attack or stroke.

Sometimes it can be confusing when looking at the carbohydrate content of food, as some healthy foods can be high in carbohydrates and therefore sugars.

We should aim to get most of our carbohydrates from starchy foods, fruit and vegetables, and limit our intake of free sugars.

What are free sugars?

Free sugars are sugars added to foods such as in biscuits, cakes, sweets and drinks. They also include naturally occurring sugars in honey and syrups.

Fruit and milk contain natural sugars so aren't counted as free sugars, and are considered healthier options. However, once fruit is juiced or incorporated into a smoothie, it becomes a free sugar.

How much sugar should I eat?

A maximum of 30g of free sugars should be consumed a day (about 7 teaspoons or sugar cubes). This can add up very quickly through sweet snacks, soft drinks, fruit juices, alcohol, condiments, ready meals, jams and preserves.

When checking food labels, the ‘carbohydrates of which sugars’ value includes the total sugar content of the food, including free sugars and those naturally occurring in yogurt, fruit and vegetables.

High sugar foods are those which contain more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g, while low sugar foods are those which contain 5g or less of total sugars per 100g.

It's important to look at the total sugar content of foods but it's equally as important to be able to determine the healthier options by looking at which foods contains less free sugars, even if the total sugar content is the same.

For example, a food which is made with fruit or milk will be a healthier choice than a food with a high sugar content without fruit or milk.

How to eat less sugar

  • Swap to sugar-free squash and diet drinks
  • Gradually reduce the amount of sugar you add to food and drinks, and overtime your body will get used to this
  • Choose breakfast cereals without added sugars – those that aren't frosted or coated in honey or chocolate
  • Snack on fruit or vegetables rather than confectionery
  • Reduce the sugar you add when cooking
  • Cook from scratch to reduce hidden sugars in foods.

Last updated Wednesday 1 November 2023

First published on Wednesday 18 January 2023