While almost everyone knows that high blood pressure can lead to a heart attack and stroke—not everyone knows exactly how. That may be one reason half of adults in the United States have hypertension and only one in four of the have it under control, according to the CDC. But how do you lower your blood pressure?
Most people likely assume the answer is “put down the saltshaker.” While that’s good advice, not adding salt to your food is just one healthy practice to help lower your blood pressure. There are many more eating habits and food prep techniques you can use every day to adopt a lower-sodium diet. We’ll tick off seven of the best below, but first some blood pressure basics that’ll prime your pump, so to speak, toward action.
You can think of your circulatory system as a water pump (your heart) and pipes (your blood vessels). Blood pressure is the force the blood pushing against artery walls as your heart pumps blood through those pipes to move oxygen throughout your body. Healthy blood vessels are pliable pipes that easily flex as needed to maintain steady blood flow. However, when arteries become stiff or “hardened” and not able to dilate, your heart must work much harder, increasing the force needed to move the blood through those pipes. That’s high blood pressure.
When shopping, check nutrition labels carefully. “Labels that say things like ‘25% less sodium’ are often deceiving because they only means that the product has less sodium than their original product,” warns Jamie Nadeau, RD, a registered dietitian and owner of The Balanced Nutritionist. “Also, keep in mind that many high sodium foods don’t taste super salty.”
Some surprising sources of sodium include breads, cheese, salad dressings, and condiments. One example of this is cottage cheese, which packs about 373 mg of sodium in a half a cup.
Eating more of the healthiest of foods, such as lentils, beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, will help lower your blood pressure, says Rhyan Geiger, RDN, owner of Phoenix Vegan Dietitian. “These foods promote heart health not only with their fiber content but also with the micronutrients and antioxidants they provide as well,” she says. Research in Frontiers in Nutrition links increasing fiber intake to lowering blood pressure.
You can lower your sodium consumption by choosing pasta and beans in their dry form rather than canned, which tends to use lots of salt as a preservative, says Eatthis.com medical review board expert and registered dietitian nutritionist Lisa R. Young, PhD, RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim & The Portion Teller Plan.
Also, use fresh meats instead of those packaged and preserved. Fresh cuts of beef, chicken or pork contain natural sodium, but much less than is added during processing in products like bacon or ham, says Young. And if you must use canned beans and vegetables for convenience, rinse them under water first to remove sodium. An analysis by The Food Analysis Laboratory Control Center (FALCC) at Virginia Tech found that rinsing and draining canned vegetables with lukewarm tap water reduces sodium content by between 9–23%.
If your food needs a hint of salt to spark up the flavor, try kelp flakes, suggests clinical nutritionist Sara Kahn, MS, CNS, CDN.
“Kelp is a type of seaweed that has been dried and granulated and can be used in place of salt in cooking to impart a savory taste,” Kahn says. “It’s high in iodine and offers other essential nutrients like magnesium, calcium, and iron.”
Another alternative seasoning is gomasio or sesame salt. It can be used as a condiment on salads, soups, pasta, fish, chicken and more.
“Made from a blend of toasted sesame seeds and a small amount of sea salt, it’s lower in sodium than table salt and offers calcium, potassium and iron,” says Kahn.
Low-sodium cooking can feel challenging at first, especially when making a meal for someone with well-salted tastebuds. One way to mask the missing sodium is to season the meal liberally with salt-free seasonings like herbs and spices.