By starting a few new food habits, including lowering salt intake, counting calories and watching portion sizes, you may be able to lower your blood pressure and reduce the medications you need to control high blood pressure. Here's how.
Track What You Eat
Some people are not aware of how many calories they eat and drink each day. They may underestimate how much they eat and wonder why they can’t lose weight.
Writing down the foods you eat, including the portion sizes, can let you see the truth about your food intake. You can then start cutting back -- reducing calories and portions -- to lose weight and manage your blood pressure.
Be aware, too, of alcohol intake. Alcohol can increase your blood pressure, as well.
Avoid Salt (Sodium)
A high-sodium diet increases blood pressure in many people. In fact, the less sodium you eat, the better blood pressure control you might have.
The American Heart Association recommends getting less than 2,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium (about 1 teaspoon) each day, unless you have high blood pressure or if you are at risk (if you have diabetes or kidney disease, or are African American). Then, the recommendation is that you eat 1,500 milligrams of salt a day. That's less than a teaspoon from all your meals and snacks.
To lower the sodium in your diet, try these suggestions:
- Use a food diary to keep track of the salt in the foods you eat.
- Break the habit of automatically reaching for your salt shaker. Table salt is about 40% sodium, according to the American Heart Association. So avoid adding salt to foods at the table.
- Read the labels when shopping. Look for lower-sodium cereals, crackers, pasta sauces, canned vegetables, or any foods with low-salt options.
- Select foods that have 5% or less of the “Daily Value” of sodium.
- Avoid foods that have 20% or more Daily Value of sodium.
- Eat fewer processed, canned, and packaged foods like hot dogs and potato chips. Packaged, processed foods account for most of the sodium in people's diets. If you prepare your own food, you control what's in it.
- At restaurants, ask about salt added to food. Many chefs will skip or cut back on salt if you ask.
- If your restaurant posts the nutrition facts for its dishes, check how much sodium is in a serving. There may be lower-sodium options on the menu.
- Use salt-free seasonings.
- If you need to use salt while cooking, add it at the end. You’ll need to add less.
Know What to Eat
Potassium, magnesium, and fiber, on the other hand, may help control blood pressure. Fruits and vegetables are high in potassium, magnesium, and fiber, and they’re low in sodium. Stick to whole fruits and veggies. Juice is less helpful, because the fiber is removed. Also, nuts, seeds, legumes, lean meats, and poultry are good sources of magnesium.
To increase the amounts of natural potassium, magnesium, and fiber you take in, select from the following:
- beet greens
- green beans
- green peas
- lima beans
- sweet potatoes
- yogurt (fat-free)
What Is the DASH Diet?
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) is an eating plan rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, and low-fat dairy. These foods are high in key nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, fiber, and protein.
To start the DASH diet, follow these recommendations (based on 2,000 calories a day):
- Grains: 7-8 daily servings (serving sizes: 1 slice of bread, 1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta, 1 ounce dry cereal)
- Vegetables: 4-5 daily servings (1 cup raw leafy greens, 1/2 cup cooked vegetable)
- Fruits: 4-5 daily servings (1 medium fruit, 1/2 cup fresh or frozen fruit, 1/4 cup dried fruit, 6 ounces fruit juice)
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy products: 2-3 daily servings (8 ounces milk, 1 cup yogurt, 1.5 ounces cheese)
- Lean meat, poultry, and fish: 2 or fewer servings a day (3 ounces cooked meat, poultry, or fish)
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes: 4-5 servings per week (1/3 cup nuts, 2 tablespoons seeds, 1/2 cup cooked dry beans or peas)
- Fats and oils: 2-3 daily servings (1 teaspoon vegetable oil or soft margarine, 1 tablespoon low-fat mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons light salad dressing)
- Sweets: less than 5 servings per week. (1 tablespoon sugar, jelly, or jam)
Ask your doctor or a dietitian to help you start the DASH diet. They can tell you how many calories you need each day to maintain or get to a healthy weight. And then they can help you plan meals with foods you enjoy that meet the DASH guidelines.
Other Ingredients to Avoid
You already know how salt can sneak into a lot of packaged foods. But it’s not the only thing to watch when you’re watching your blood pressure.
Sugar, in general, will add calories with little to no nutritional value. But the white stuff is also known by several other names, like agave, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, brown sugar, turbinado, raw sugar, maple syrup, date sugar, malt syrup, pancake syrup, fruit juice concentrates, and dextrose.
Remember that 4 to 5 grams of sugar is equal to a teaspoon. The American Heart Association recommends most adult women don’t go over 6 teaspoons (20 grams) a day and adult men 9 teaspoons, or 36 grams. For comparison, a can of soda can have up to 40 grams, or about 10 teaspoons of sugar.
Sodium nitrate is most commonly used as a preservative for salty, processed meats like bacon and deli selections. Studies have shown that too much of these ingredients can increase your risk of heart disease and cancer.
Choose lean, fresh meats and seafood over processed as much as possible.
Partially hydrogenated oil (trans fats)
If you see foods that say "partially hydrogenated oil," you’ve found trans fat. Even food labeled “0 trans fats” can have up to half a gram. So it’s best to know where they lurk and avoid them. The worst offenders are no surprise: Processed snacks like crackers, chips, and cookies are full of them, as are fried foods and other foods using vegetable shortenings and margarine.