The Common Dietary Habit That Could Be Making Your Blood Pressure Worse

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in two adults in the U.S. has high blood pressure. Considering that high blood pressure is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease—the leading cause of death in the U.S.—this statistic is pretty alarming. High blood pressure also goes hand-in-hand with high LDL cholesterol, which 75 percent of heart attack and stroke survivors reported having, according to new data from the American Heart Association.

Here’s the good news: Every single person has the power to lower their blood pressure and LDL cholesterol through diet and lifestyle habits. In fact, there’s one diet habit in particular that cardiologists say is especially detrimental for blood pressure, and changing it could add years to your life.

Related: The One Habit That Can Lower Your Blood Pressure Overnight, According to a Cardiologist

The Worst Dietary Habit for Blood Pressure

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, M.D., the Chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and the past president of the American Heart Association, says that the dietary habit that negatively impacts blood pressure the most is regularly eating processed foods. “Foods that are cooked for us or are processed are usually much higher in sodium and also much higher in calories than something that was grown or produced and not processed,” he explains.

Dr. Lloyd-Jones points out that the American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day (and an ideal limit of less than 1,500 mg per day) for most adults, especially for those with high blood pressure. If processed foods are a mainstay in your diet, you can reach this amount pretty quickly. For example, two slices of frozen pizza have about 724 mg of sodium. “Even cutting back by 1,000 mg a day can improve blood pressure and heart health,” Dr. Lloyd-Jones says.

Related: Trying to Cut Back on Salt? Here Are 14 High-Sodium Foods to Avoid (or at Least Eat In Moderation) 

The main source of sodium is salt and the reason why it negatively impacts blood pressure is because salt makes the body hold onto water. This extra water in the body puts pressure on blood vessel walls, raising blood pressure.

Dr. Karishma Patwa, MD, a cardiologist with Manhattan Cardiology and contributor to, says that many people don’t realize all the places sodium can be hidden. This includes frozen meals, condiments, sauces, canned soups and fast food. Minimizing processed foods such as these is the best way to minimize the amount of sodium in your diet.

Related: Worried About Salt and Your Blood Pressure? Here's What Cardiologists Want You To Know

How To Eat in a Way That Positively Impacts Blood Pressure

Okay, processed foods are a no-go. So what should you eat instead? “In terms of cardiovascular health, I recommend the DASH Diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” Dr. Patwa says. She adds that the DASH diet, along with the Mediterranean diet, focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, and fish and seafood.

Scientific studies do show that following the DASH diet is beneficial for blood pressure. In fact, simply making the switch from a standard American diet to following the DASH diet has been found to lower blood pressure by between 6 and 11 mm Hg. A typical day following the DASH diet includes five servings of vegetables, five servings of fruit, seven servings of carbs, two servings of low-fat dairy and two or fewer servings of lean protein. Two to three weekly servings of nuts or seeds is also a typical part of following this eating plan.

In addition to eating healthier foods, Dr. Lloyd-Jones says that another dietary habit that can help benefit blood pressure is minimizing alcohol. “Alcohol intake, especially above one drink per day, can contribute to elevated blood pressure, and reducing alcohol intake can be an important way to help control hypertension,” he says.

Both cardiologists say that when someone makes the decision to ditch high-sodium processed foods for nutrient-rich whole foods, their health will change for the better relatively quickly. “With dietary and lifestyle changes, patients often see positive changes in symptoms and blood pressure readings within two to four weeks. It is, however, important to remember that even with the above changes, blood pressure reading may not fall to the ideal range and may still necessitate medication therapy,” Dr. Patwa says.

It bears repeating that what’s encouraging about the link between dietary habits and blood pressure is that it gives everyone the power to take control of their heart health. As both cardiologists shared, even small reductions in sodium have a big impact. Every time you replace processed food with something natural and nutrient-rich, you’re benefiting your heart in a major way. And chances are, it will taste better too!

Next up, learn more about the DASH diet, including its benefits and tips for following it.