Today one in three Americans suffers from high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. That totals around 67 million people, many of whom don’t realise they are suffering from this disease. A blood pressure reading of over 130/90mmHg is considered high. If you have angina, coronary heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease or have suffered a heart attack or stroke then your blood pressure should be below 130/80mmHg.
Understanding the numbers
All blood pressure readings consist of two different numbers shown as one over the other. The numbers are measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg). The first number represents systolic blood pressure, the highest level of blood pressure reached as the heart contracts and pumps blood through the arteries. The second number is the diastolic blood pressure, the lowest level of blood pressure as the heart relaxes between beats.
People suffering from high blood pressure need to make major adjustments to their daily lifestyles. Increased exercise, giving up smoking and changes to diets are major factors in reducing blood pressure. One of the most important causes of high blood pressure is diet. Eating a healthy well balanced diet is a vital element in reducing blood pressure. Medical experts will tell their patients that medication alone is not going to help treat hypertension.
Salt – Silent and Deadly
The major dietary cause of high blood pressure is salt. Excessive salt/sodium causes damage to the heart and arteries while raising blood pressure. The kidneys use a delicate balance of salt/sodium to remove unwanted fluids from the body. Excess salt means the kidneys retain more fluids and toxins, which raises blood pressure and puts a strain on the kidneys, heart and brain.
The tiny muscles in the arteries thicken as they try to deal with the rising blood pressure, reducing the space inside the arteries and raising blood pressure even further. Gradually the arteries narrow until they either clog up completely or burst. When this happens to the arteries leading to the heart restrict the volume of blood flow and cause sharp chest pains known as angina. Over time the heart’s supply of oxygen and nutrients falls so low there is an increased risk of a heart attack or death.
The daily recommended dose of salt for an adult is one teaspoon. About 80 percent of our daily salt allowance is obtained from processed foods such as breakfast cereal, biscuits and bread and takeaway meals. The remaining 20 percent is sourced from home cooking.
One of the easiest ways to reduce salt intake is to cut back or stop using salt in the kitchen and at the table. Being aware of the salt/sodium content at the supermarket or restaurant is also beneficial for reducing high blood pressure. Some of the worst offenders:
Processed meat: the use of salt and preservatives to cure, salt or smoke meat means a three ounce portion can contain almost one full teaspoon of salt – that’s equals the recommended daily salt allowance in just one meal.
Frozen pizza: a single serving of pizza equals one and a half teaspoons of salt – the dough, cheese, tomato sauce and processed meat topping all contain sodium.
Chinese food: a tablespoon of soy sauce and teriyaki sauce contains over half a teaspoon of salt. One serving of beef and oyster sauce can contain two teaspoons of salt.
Convenience foods: half a pound of chicken pot pie or a serving of frozen turkey and gravy may contain up to half a teaspoon of salt.
Canned and pickled foods: although useful when fresh vegetables are not available, the preservatives, seasonings and sauces in canned products are usually full of sodium. One can of creamed corn or a cup of tomato juice may contain half a teaspoon of salt. A single serving of spaghetti and meat sauce is flavoured with almost one teaspoon of salt. A can of chicken noodle soup contains almost one and a half teaspoons of salt.
To reduce daily salt intake read product labels to take note of sodium content, and look for low or reduced sodium options. A general guideline to salt details on product labels:
Foods high in salt contain more than 1.5g salt per 100g, or 0.6g sodium/100g
Foods low in salt contain less than 0.3g salt per 100g, or 0.1g sodium/100g
Not so sweet sugar
A diet containing more than six to nine teaspoons of sugar leads to obesity, poor nutrition and increased triglycerides – fats in the blood that contribute to high blood pressure. Obesity plays a significant role in high blood pressure by slowing the blood flow through the body and increasing strain on the heart.
Fructose corn syrup is a vital ingredient in thousands of processed food products, such as ketchup, bread, soda drinks, canned products and cookies and crackers. Reducing consumption of these products will help lower blood pressure and aid in weight loss. Fructose occurs naturally in products such as honey and fruit, and while natural products are a staple of a healthy diet they should consumed in moderation.
When shopping read the labels on different products to establish the levels of sugar contained. There are many different names for sugars, most of which end in the suffix “ose”. Dextrose, fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose and sucrose are some of the alternative names for sugar. Another guide is:
Low: 5g or less of total sugars per 100g
High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
The wrong fats
Fat is an essential part of any diet. It supplies energy for the body’s cells, protects organs and nerves, helps the body absorb and transport different nutrients and maintains healthy heart function. Excess fats in a diet do not cause high blood pressure, but they do cause weight gain which is a factor in hypertension.
Saturated fats can cause cholesterol and weight gain, both dangerous conditions for hypertension. Too much cholesterol builds up in the arteries, narrowing them and raising blood pressure, so increasing the risk of strokes and heart disease. Saturated fats are found in animal products such as meat and whole milk dairy products. Although some plant oils, including coconut oils, palm kernel and palm oil are saturated fats they do not contain cholesterol.
Trans fats can also contribute towards cholesterol. The main source of these kinds of fats is fast foods; trans fats are used to extend the shelf life of baked products such as cakes, cookies, biscuits, donuts and takeaway meals.
To reduce daily fat intake replace saturated fat and trans fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These vegetable-based oils include olive oil, grape seed oil and sunflower oil. Food labels are an excellent guide to the different quantities of fat:
Low: less than 3g total fat or 1 g saturated fat per 100g – a good choice.
Medium: between 3-20g total fat or 1-5g saturated fat per 100g – use sparingly.
High: more than 20g total fat or 5g saturated fat per 100g – avoid these products.
All alcohol contains calories and sugar, both factors in obesity and high blood pressure. Alcohol damages the walls of the blood vessels, leading to the risk of further complications. Having more than three drinks in a single drinking session will temporarily increase blood pressure. Repeated binge drinking leads to long term hypertension.
After one drink alcohol relaxes the peripheral blood vessels to allow increased blood flow through the skin and body tissues, leading to a drop in blood pressure. To maintain sufficient blood flow to the body organs the heart rate increases. As the number of drinks increases there is a risk of atria fibrillation, a rapid irregular heartbeat caused as the heart’s upper chambers contract too quickly. The heart does not pump blood away effectively, risking the formation of blood clots as the blood pools in the heart chambers. If the clot travels to the brain it will cause a stroke. Fortunately this scenario is temporary, as long as the heavy drinking stops.
Heavy drinkers seeking to lower their blood pressure should gradually reduce their consumption over one to two weeks. Those who stop suddenly risk developing high blood pressure for several days.
Guidelines for moderate alcohol consumption are:
Two drinks per day for men under the age of 65.
One drink per day for men over the age of 65.
One drink per day for women of any age.
Long term dietary considerations
DASH is the acronym for Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension. Considered one of the best and most well-balanced diets in the world the DASH plan has been proven to lower high blood pressure. It is a low sodium diet plan providing a full range of products to reduce hypertension.
There is a place for salt, sugar, fat and alcohol in our diets. These products, used in moderation, can be a part of a healthy lifestyle. By being more aware of what were putting in our bodies we will benefit from reduced blood pressure and minimise the risk of suffering from any of the issue associated with high blood pressure.