The keto diet is the low-carb, high-fat diet all your friends and coworkers are trying right now. It’s currently best known as a weight loss diet, but it might have other health benefits as well — that is, if you’re interpreting the diet’s recommendations correctly.
Read on to learn more about how the keto diet affects your heart — and how it might benefit people living with high blood pressure.
Healthiest foods to eat on the keto diet
Keto diet | ThitareeSarmkasat/iStock/Gety Images
In general, the keto diet can be summarized in a single sentence: More fat, fewer carbs. Unfortunately — like most things nutrition-related — it’s not actually that simple.
Many people go on the keto diet to lose weight. A high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet promotes ketosis, a metabolic state that forces the body to burn fat for fuel instead of glucose.
But it’s possible to misinterpret these general guidelines. Someone might hear “more fat” and think it’s healthy to eat massive quantities of unhealthy foods high in fat, instead of healthy foods that contain healthy fats.
Someone might take “fewer carbs” to mean no fruits or vegetables, even though these are actually some of the most important parts of a heart-healthy keto diet (more on that in the next section).
Some of the best heart-healthy foods to eat on the keto diet include:
- Lean meats (such as chicken)
- Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, tuna)
- Nuts and seeds (unsalted)
- Leafy green vegetables.
Contrary to a lot of the information that goes around, fat is good for you. Carbs are also good for you. But if you don’t choose them wisely, they can actually end up doing more harm than good.
Is the keto diet bad for your heart?
I’m not here to tell you not to follow the keto diet, or that doing so will harm your health. But it’s important to pay attention to the quality of the foods you’re eating — whichever diet you’re following — instead of just going by a general list of “keto-approved” foods.
Eating foods high in fat does not necessarily mean you can eat all the butter and coconut oil you want. Small amounts of these things are not a death sentence. However, try to think of food quality in terms of what it DOESN’T provide when evaluating its benefits or risks to your heart.
People with a lower-than-recommended intake of fiber, for example, tend to have higher LDL (“bad”) cholesterol than those who consume the recommended minimum 25-28 grams of fiber on average per day.
Research has also shown that eating sufficient amounts of fiber decreases your heart disease risk. One reason for this is that fiber binds to cholesterol in your body — high cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease — and helps remove it from the body before it can raise blood cholesterol.
There is definitely room for fiber in a keto diet. You just have to make sure you’re choosing high-fiber plant foods that are as low in carbohydrates as possible, such as non-starchy vegetables.
Does the keto diet affect blood pressure?
Grilled chicken salad | iStock/Getty Images
There is limited research on the effects of low-carb diets on blood pressure in large populations of humans. One study, for example, found that a low-carb, high-fat diet reduced high blood pressure in rats. It’s impossible to conclude from results like these, however, that the same thing will happen to every human who tries the keto diet. Rats are not people.
However, breaking up the keto diet into foods that are good for your heart and foods that aren’t, it’s possible to follow a heart-healthy diet that could reduce or prevent high blood pressure.
This does not mean the keto diet can or should replace treatments prescribed by your doctor. It just means that you can — probably — safely eat healthy, “keto-approved” foods that won’t necessarily raise your blood pressure.
Yes — you can technically follow the keto diet if you have high blood pressure. It’s probably best to run any major dietary changes by your health care providers just to make sure your diet complies not just with their recommendations, but with your medications and other medical considerations as well.
How to do the keto diet with high blood pressure
An overall poor diet — especially one high in sodium — is associated with high blood pressure and related health issues. Too many calories, for example, can lead to weight gain, and weight gain increases your risk of hypertension, heart disease, and more.
A keto diet can naturally work for people living with high blood pressure — as long as they stay away from highly processed foods. Mostly avoid foods high in sodium, including:
- Hot dogs
- Most frozen ready-to-eat meals (e.g., Lean Cuisine)
- Sugar-free snack foods
- Low-fat dairy products, such as yogurt
- Cheese — especially highly processed cheese.
Do your research before starting any new diet — especially if you’ve been diagnosed with a medical condition such as high blood pressure. There are circumstances in which a diet should not fully replace other treatment methods prescribed by your doctor. But a healthy diet can often help improve things if done right.