Considering how tasty and readily available salty foods are, talking about foods and high blood pressure is never an enjoyable conversation for anyone.
However, it’s a necessary discussion since 1 out 3 Americans have high blood pressure.
As a black man, there are three things I fear in life—rogue police officers, high blood pressure, and razor bumps. Scary right? My worst nightmare is some version of me sitting in the back of a police car with blood pressure cuffs on and an itchy 5 o’clock shadow that I can’t scratch.
Now, all jokes aside, I’m just a GI doc who cooks—treating razor bumps isn’t my field of expertise, nor is fair and impartial policing. However, high blood pressure is a different story. W
I’ve seen countless people suffer from strokes, heart attacks, and kidney failure. For me, these aren’t just words I write on a page—these are unforgettable memories from bearing witness to suffering.
When I think of strokes, I think of the neurologists calling me to place a feeding tube in someone’s stomach because they can’t safely eat food by mouth anymore. When I think of heart attacks, I flash back to being a resident in the cardiac critical care unit where I held the hands of family members whose loved ones had cardiac arrests after heart attacks.
Ultimately, the most sobering aspect of having these memories is that a couple of dietary tweaks could have prevented them.
So, what are these dietary tweaks that can help with high blood pressure?
At this point, everyone should be aware that eating too much salt (sodium) is the culprit behind most cases of high blood pressure. In a recent post, I highlighted how reading nutrition labels could help you lower your salt intake. In this post, I want to talk about which foods contribute the most sodium to the average American’s diet.
A recent study by the CDC showed that 44% of the sodium consumed in the U.S. comes from only 10 categories/types of food.
In 2012, researchers analyzed data from over 7000 participants in the What We Eat in America Study and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). After reviewing 24-hour dietary recalls, the researchers estimated that the average American consumes 3,266 mg of sodium daily. This amount is well above the recommended 2,300 mg of sodium.
Moreover, they found that 44% of the daily sodium consumption came from the following 10 categories of food
1. Bread and rolls (7.4%)
I’m not surprised by this. I definitely remember how much salt we added to loaves of bread in my baking and pastry class when I was in culinary school.
2. Cold cuts/cured meats (5.1%)
Many of these deli meats are preserved with salt.
3. Pizza (4.9%)
Pizza has to be the most addictive food on the planet. It’s the salty trinity (cheese +/- cured meats, bread, and tomato sauce).
4. Chicken (4.5%)
I blame chicken nuggets. They look so cute and cuddly, but they are definitely not innocent.
5. Soups (4.3%)
Have you seen how much sodium there is in canned soups?
6. Sandwiches (4.0%)
The salty trinity remixed (bread, cured meats, cheese). Don’t forget the extra pickle.
7. Cheese (3.8%)
Cheese = salt, milk, and time.
8. Pasta dishes (like spaghetti with meat sauce) (3.3%)
9. Meat mixed dishes (like meatloaf with tomato sauce) (3.2%)
Not surprising, a salt-free meatloaf is downright Un-American.
10. Savory snacks (like chips and pretzels) (3.1%)
These are delicious. Honestly, I probably had a salt and vinegar chip addiction at one point in my life. However, you know these snacks have a ton of salt in them.
So, what should we do with this information? What’s the bottom line about food and high blood pressure?
First, don’t get depressed and feel like you can’t eat anything. Second, I by no means am judging anyone. I am not a salt-shamer, so don’t get salty.
The purpose of this post is to have a real conversation about where the sodium in our diet is coming from. Moreover, I want to center the conversation around actual food. Talking about how much salt we are eating shouldn’t require using the metric system.
If you have high blood pressure, eat less of these foods. If you are at risk for high blood pressure, eat less of these foods.
Now if you are still sad after reading this post, take a step back and look at the percentages in the parentheses next to the food. These numbers represent the sodium contribution for each individual food group.
Overall, the percentage for each category is small, but the percentages add up quickly if you are eating multiple different categories of salty food throughout the day. For example, eating a sandwich with a soup and a side of pasta salad is probably not the best combo for a salt-sensitive individual.
I wish I could say our bodies can handle a high sodium diet, but I’d be lying.
Share your thoughts on foods and high blood pressure in the comments section— I want to hear from you.
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I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.