If you want to learn how to lower blood pressure, your lifestyle is one of your best weapons. By eating with your heart and blood pressure in mind, you might prevent hypertension or, if you already have it, help get your blood pressure under better control.
When it comes to hypertension, your diet is a major determinant of whether your blood pressure numbers go up or down. A poor diet is one of the key drivers of hypertension, as well as obesity and an array of other diseases, whereas the right eating plan can help you keep your blood pressure in check.
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How to Lower Blood Pressure with the DASH Diet
In an effort to identify the best foods for cardiovascular health and, more specifically, high blood pressure prevention, the National Institutes of Health sponsored two major trials. The first was the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study, conducted at four academic medical centers in the United States.
The study included 459 men and women (average age, 45) with a systolic blood pressure below 160 mmHg and diastolic pressure between 80 and 95 mmHg. For three weeks, the participants consumed a control diet, patterned after a typical “Western” diet. For the next eight weeks, some continued on the control diet, while the rest ate either a diet rich in fruits and vegetables or a “combination” diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, with a lower intake of saturated and total fat. All three dietary groups consumed about 3,000 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day.
Overall, the researchers found that, compared with the control diet, the diet rich in fruits and vegetables reduced systolic blood pressure an additional 2.8 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by 1.1 mmHg, while the combination diet reduced systolic and diastolic pressure by 5.5 mmHg and 3 mmHg, respectively.
Following the DASH Diet
The DASH eating method doesn’t require you to follow a complicated menu. Instead, it outlines the types of foods you should consume and how much you should eat each day. For instance, if you follow a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, the DASH eating plan suggests a daily intake of:
- 6 to 8 servings of grains (preferably, whole grains)
- 6 or fewer servings of lean meat, fish, or poultry
- 4 to 5 servings of vegetables
- 4 to 5 servings of fruit
- 2 to 3 servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy products
- 2 to 3 servings of healthy fats and oils
- 2 tablespoons light salad dressing; 1 teaspoon vegetable oil.
- 4 to 5 servings of nuts, seeds, and legumes per week.
- Limit sweets and added sugars to 5 servings or fewer per week.
As the DASH study findings suggest, a mostly plant-based diet can be beneficial for both your heart health and blood pressure.
Still, keeping meat off your plate is no guarantee you’ll control your blood pressure—you still need to focus on the right foods. Instead of French fries and potato chips, fill your vegetarian plate with leafy greens, such as spinach, and high-fiber foods, such as beans and fresh fruit.
How to Lower Blood Pressure Even Further: Shed the Sodium
Although your body needs some sodium to function normally, excess sodium causes your body to retain extra fluid, which drives up your blood pressure and places added strain on your heart and blood vessels.
So, based on the DASH study findings, the American Heart Association (AHA) and other experts recommend consuming no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (about the amount in a teaspoon of table salt), although the AHA advocates a more stringent goal of 1,500 mg or less daily for most adults, including those with high blood pressure.
Despite efforts by the AHA and the rest of the medical community to heighten awareness of the dangers of too much sodium in the diet, most Americans have no idea how much sodium they really eat. In an AHA survey, 97 percent of the people questioned underestimated or could not estimate how much sodium they consume daily, and most were off by about 1,000 mg.
Shake the Salt Habit
You don’t necessarily have to make huge changes to reduce your sodium intake. For instance, if your dinner plate is normally half full with meat and half full with a starch—both of which tend to be higher in sodium—try filling half the plate with a non-starchy vegetable, a small amount of lean protein, and a small amount of a starch.
One obvious way to cut back on your sodium intake is to put away the salt shaker. Table salt, or sodium chloride, consists of about 40 percent sodium, with each teaspoon of salt containing 2,300 mg of sodium. Remove the salt shaker from your table, and don’t include salt in your cooking. Instead of salt, spice up your food with other seasonings, such as pepper, lemon juice, onions, garlic, onion, and herbs.
But, if you must have salt, try setting aside a ¼ teaspoon (575 mg of sodium) or a ½ teaspoon (1,150 mg of sodium) in an empty salt shaker so you can tell how much you’re allowed to use each day. And, be more selective in the foods you salt: Pick the foods you know you have to salt and reserve your salt allotment for them.
Sodium: Boxed, Canned, and Packaged
The salt shaker isn’t the only source of sodium in your diet, nor is it the largest. More than three-quarters of the sodium in the American diet comes from processed or prepackaged foods, along with restaurant food, according to CDC estimates. In fact, only 6 percent of dietary sodium is added at the dinner table, 5 percent is added during cooking, and the rest occurs naturally in foods, the CDC notes.
Here are some examples from the CDC:
- Breads and rolls
- Lunch meats
- Frozen pizza
- Canned soups
- Canned vegetables
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