Just as there are certain foods shown to improve blood pressure and reduce your risk of hypertension, there also some that are known to make things worse. Here are foods to avoid or, at the very least, enjoy in moderation.
More than 50 studies attest to the blood pressure–raising effects of alcohol consumption, suggesting that the more you drink, the greater the effect. Overall, for every alcoholic drink you cut out a day, you can expect your blood pressure to fall about 1 to 2 mmHg, a result that translates directly into a reduction in long-term risk for hypertension. For instance, a 1999 analysis of three major studies found that people who drank less than an ounce of alcohol a day (0.88 ounce) had a 40 percent increase in their risk of hypertension, while those drinking 3.5 ounces a day (the amount found in a typical drink) increased their risk by 300 percent. Drinking is so strongly linked with hypertension that there’s some talk about establishing a separate blood pressure category called alcohol-related hypertension.
If you enjoy wine occasionally, you don’t have to go overboard and become a teetotaler. But as we recommend, you need to limit your alcohol intake to one or two drinks a day at most. And skip the New Year’s Eve blowout; studies have found that binge drinking and heavy drinking put you at significantly high risk for hemorrhagic stroke.
The data on caffeine and blood pressure is about as mixed as that on sodium. Researchers don’t even know for sure what chemicals in coffee affect blood pressure. It could be caffeine, but recent studies suggest that some unknown ingredient or ingredients may actually be to blame. And while we’re pretty clear on the fact that a cup of coffee temporarily raises your blood pressure, we’re less clear on the long-term effects of coffee drinking. For instance, studies on young people with normal blood pressure find little effect, but studies on older people with high blood pressure find that coffee drinkers have even higher blood pressure—about 5/3 mmHg higher than those who abstain. The effects are much worse if they smoke.
We’re not going to tell you to give up your morning java. If you have high blood pressure, though, don’t couple coffee with a cigarette or drink it when you’re stressed or just before you exercise. These combinations may exacerbate its effects.
Regardless of blood pressure research, there is clear evidence of the heart-damaging effects of high intake of saturated fat, the kind found primarily in full-fat animal products such as dairy foods and meats.
If you love the strongly flavored chewy candy and have high blood pressure, there could be a connection. A study by researchers in Iceland found that eating even small amounts of licorice (comparable to a handful of jelly beans) raised blood pressure an average of 3.5 mmHg. Try assuaging your sweet tooth with a piece of dark chocolate instead. Loaded with antioxidants, chocolate (in small doses) is actually good for your heart.