Question: What is ‘hypertension’ and is there something I can change in my diet to improve it?
Answer: So glad you asked. Hypertension (HTN) is simply a fancy word for the condition of having high blood pressure. High blood pressure is defined as 130/80 or higher, while ‘normal’ blood pressure is 120/80. About 1 in 3 Americans has hypertension, and it can lead to heart disease or stroke if left untreated.
Limiting sodium intake is one of the key changes you can make to lower your blood pressure. The average American consumes approximately 3,400 mg sodium each day, while the recommended limit is 2,300 mg per day for those without high blood pressure and 1,500 mg for those with high blood pressure. One teaspoon (6 grams) of table salt equates to 2,300 mg sodium. Unfortunately, our sodium intake isn’t simply limited to the salt we add at the table or while cooking dinner; rather most of it is likely found in our foods and beverages from restaurants and from inside a box, bag or can.
Fortunately, diet and lifestyle changes can help lower your blood pressure and negate the need for prescription medication. Exercising for at least 30 minutes a day, losing as little as 5% of your body weight (if overweight) and adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet can all lead to better health outcomes. Additionally, one eating plan in particular is designed to lower blood pressure.
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is designed to lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol by limiting sodium and was recently ranked the ‘Best Diet Overall’ for the eighth year in a row by U.S. News and World Report. The DASH diet is low in sodium and saturated and trans fats and high in potassium, calcium, magnesium and fiber. The diet recommends increasing fruit, vegetable and whole grain intake, while limiting added sugars.
Limiting sodium in your diet is easier than you may think. Opt for fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, and canned varieties without added salt. Limit convenience foods and condiments, such as ketchup, as they are very high in sodium. Always taste your food prior to salting, and try using a salt-free seasoning blend when cooking. Rinse canned beans before using and discard the liquid. At a restaurant, avoid foods that are pickled, cured, smoked or made with soy sauce or broth.
In addition to lowering sodium intake, there are a few specific dietary components that have a protective effect on blood pressure and should be increased in your diet. Potassium helps lower blood pressure by working with your kidneys to restore the balance of fluid in your body. When sodium intake is high, fluid is retained and blood pressure rises. Increasing potassium allows the extra fluid to exit the bloodstream and make its way to the bladder to be excreted. Magnesium helps lower blood pressure by preventing blood vessels from constricting, and supplements have been shown to have a beneficial effect. While calcium itself may not lower blood pressure directly, studies show that eating dairy products does have a beneficial affect on blood pressure. Lastly, increasing fiber in the diet of those who already have hypertension has been shown to significantly lower blood pressure.
Based on a 2,000 calorie/day eating plan, the following servings are recommended per day unless otherwise noted: Grains (6-8), Meat/Poultry/Fish (6 oz or less), Vegetables (4-5), Fruit (4-5), Fat-Free or Low-fat Dairy (2-3), Nuts/Seeds/Legumes (4-5 per week), Fats/Oils (2-3), Sweets/Added Sugars (5 or less per week), Sodium (2,300 mg). A dietitian can help you design specific meal plans to fit your calorie and protein needs and desired sodium intake based on the DASH diet.
The DASH diet also recommends being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol, reducing stress, getting enough sleep and quitting smoking.
For more information about the DASH diet, go to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute website.