Have you ever been told you need to lower your blood pressure? If so, were you started on medications to help bring it down? That is often the first step in making sure your blood pressure does not get out of control. But did anyone ever tell you that in some cases diet can work just as well as medications?
First of all, let's define high blood pressure. Normal blood pressure is usually around 120/80 or lower. The first number is your Systolic pressure, which measures the pressure in the arteries as your heart beats. The bottom number is the Diastolic pressure, which measures the pressure in the arteries between heart beats. As we get older, these numbers tend to increase which can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease. Once your numbers are reading over 120/80 we call that high blood pressure, or Hypertension. The strategy becomes how to get those numbers closer to a normal range to reduce the extra load on our heart.
Believe it or not, your food choices can have a powerful effect on your blood pressure. A healthy diet is SO important, but sometimes it's not easy to make changes. You may be told to eat less salt, eat less fat, eat more plant based foods, eat more potassium and magnesium rich foods, etc etc. And then there are web sites and TV programs touting supplements and wonder foods as the newest way to improve your cardiovascular health. Yikers, what is the answer?
To help, and to make things a bit simpler, several diet plans have been created to increase your ability to know which foods to include and which foods to reduce. They incorporate the above advice in some general guidelines that can make your choices much more obvious. The nice thing also is that these plans aren't fad diets and have more or less stood the test of time. In other words, you can't go wrong by following these principles.
One very popular diet strategy is called the DASH Diet. This stands for Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension. It was originally developed by the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and has been repeatedly shown to be very effective in reducing blood pressure. Here are the main points:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
- Cut back on foods that are high in fat (especially saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fats) and eat lean meats
- Eat more whole grains
- Add nuts and seeds
- Limit sweets and foods high in salt
Another popular diet is the Mediterranean Diet. Noting the better cardiovascular health of people living in the Mediterranean, this plan was developed based on common foods eaten in that region. Here are the main points:
- Eat small portions of: yogurt, cheese, poultry, eggs, whole grains
- Eat more healthy fats: olives, olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, fish
- Also eat lots of fruits and vegetables
- Limit sweets, meats
While not a "diet" so to speak, another approach is to add more nitrate-rich foods to your meals that specifically help the body reduce blood pressure. Now, you might be thinking that nitrates are commonly thought to be "bad" for you. While this is true as it applies to processed foods, there are many naturally occurring nitrates in vegetables that actually help keep your blood vessels healthy by increasing vasodilation (allowing your blood vessels to expand and stay elastic). Good sources include:
Nitrate Rich Foods
- Leafy greens (spinach, kale, chard)
- Beets (or beet juice)
Last but not least, don't forget exercise! Any movement you can do will help keep the arteries more elastic and keep your heart strong. Aim to do some sort of activity every day that gets you moving. Of course, always check with your doctor first before adding additional exercise.
So as you can see, there is LOTS you can do with your diet to manage your blood pressure. Medication is just one step. What you eat on a daily basis plays a very important role.
If you do have high blood pressure and you are ready to tackle it with diet, sit down and make a plan! Think about what foods you want to add to your diet, what foods you need to take out, and what type of exercise you can do. Having something in writing or placed on your fridge can help you make these important changes. If you want more specific guidance, ask your doctor or see a Registered Dietitian for help.
Don't let that pesky thing called Hypertension sneak up on you. Know your numbers and start eating healthy today!