We have many reasons to manage stress, quit smoking and eat a better diet–reducing our blood pressure is just one of them. Unless you are checking your blood pressure regularly, you may not even know that it is rising. Over time, our blood pressure can creep higher and higher–possibly without any symptoms–until it is chronically elevated, which we refer to as hypertension.
Reducing blood pressure is about more than just putting down the salt shaker. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, half of the US population including children and most adults, should be limiting daily sodium consumption to 1500mg. Just to frame that within our current diet, a slice of pizza contains about 650mg of sodium, a large serving of McDonald’s French fries has 350mg and the Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate has 290mg of sodium. Add to these examples that even a cup of a basic ready-to-eat cereal, such as Special K, contains 220mg of sodium per cup. As you can see, we can easily meet or exceed the 1500mg guideline without even knowing it.
Reducing blood pressure is about more than just reading food labels and kicking the salt shaker habit. In fact, it is about more than just salt. According to the Mayo Clinic, lowering blood pressure (or preventing a problem in the first place) requires a full lifestyle examination. The Mayo Clinic suggests losing weight, noting that even a five pound loss can improve blood pressure. They also recommend increasing physical activity and limiting alcohol to manage our blood pressure. They note the importance of managing stress by learning coping techniques such as meditation, a practice that is generally undervalued in our culture, but is a proven method for reducing risk of many diseases, including hypertension.
In addition to modifying these lifestyle factors, adopting a diet for controlling blood pressure is strongly encouraged. The recommended diet for lowering blood pressure, referred to as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension) diet, is based on the findings from two significant studies conducted by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). From these studies we know that the key components to lowering blood pressure through diet are:
Reduce intake of saturated fat, cholesterol and total fat
- Reduce consumption of red meat, sweets and added sugar (from food and beverages)
- Increase intake of fruits, vegetables, low/non-fat dairy
- Emphasize whole grain products, lean protein sources (such as chicken and fish)
- Aim for healthful fats from nuts and seeds
- Consume foods rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, protein and fiber
The National Institute of Health summarizes these dietary goals and gives strategies for achieving them in their reader-friendly document. I highly suggest visiting the NHLBI website to learn more about following the DASH diet and other steps toward lowering blood pressure.