If you are concerned about high blood pressure, a healthy diet and lifestyle can help to lower blood pressure levels and reduce your risk of associated illness...
High blood pressure – also known as hypertension – rarely has symptoms. For most people, the only way of knowing you have high blood pressure is to have it measured. People with high blood pressure are at greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke. If you do have high blood pressure, there are ways of bringing it down, including through diet.
What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure indicates the force inflicted on the walls of your arteries as blood is pumped around the body. You need a certain amount of pressure to keep blood flowing but if this pressure is too high it can create microscopic tears in the artery walls and speed up the hardening of the arteries.
Your heart is a pump that beats by contracting and then relaxing. The pressure of the blood flowing through the arteries varies at different times in the heartbeat cycle. A blood pressure reading gives two numbers – the first number is the systolic pressure, when the heart contracts and forces blood round your body. Diastolic pressure is the second, lower value and is the pressure recorded between heartbeats, when the heart is resting.
Know your numbers
Ideal blood pressure readings for adults are between:
90-120 (systolic) / 60-80 (diastolic)
High blood pressure readings for adults are between:
140-190 (systolic) / 90-100 (diastolic)
Note – if either your systolic or diastolic readings are high, this can indicate high blood pressure.
How food, drink and lifestyle choices can affect blood pressure
Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight is the most important recommendation for those with high blood pressure. For some people, even losing modest amounts of weight can lead to a reduction in blood pressure. Lose weight slowly and healthily (between 1lb and 2lbs a week) to increase your chances of keeping it off. Regular exercise will reduce blood pressure and plays an important part in losing weight.
Skip the salt
There is a link between having too much salt in your diet and having high blood pressure. Most diets have more salt (sodium) than we need. The target is to have less than 6g of salt a day. Packaged foods often list salt content as sodium. To convert the figure for sodium to salt, you need to multiply by 2.5.
Try to reduce the amount of salt you eat. This may help keep your blood pressure down. Cook without adding any salt, and avoid adding salt to your food at the table. Use herbs and spices to flavour your food instead.
The majority of the salt we eat is hidden in processed foods. Check the ingredients labels on foods to find out which have the least salt. Avoid foods that contain a lot of salt – such as sauces, canned soups, processed meats, salted nuts and snacks such as crisps and biscuits. Many basic foods such as bread and cereals contain a lot of salt too.
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables contain potassium, which helps to balance excess sodium (salt) in the body. Try to include potassium rich foods such as bananas, apricots, green leafy vegetables and citrus fruits like oranges. Aim to eat at least five portions of fruit & veg a day and opt for a variety of colour.
Before increasing your intake of potassium, check with your doctor. Some people, for example those with kidney disease, may need to avoid both potassium and salt.
Try to stick to your recommended daily units. For men, this means no more than four units a day and for women, no more than three units a day. Alcohol is high in calories and so can also contribute to weight gain.
The DASH diet
Developed by America’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institue (NHLBI), the DASH diet has been very successful in helping people to lower their blood pressure. The acronym stands for ‘Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension’ and the first principle recommends you cut right back on the amount of salt you eat. The diet is rich in vegetables, fruit and low-fat dairy foods and restricts saturated fat. Long-term benefits of this eating plan depend on the ability of individuals to make long-lasting dietary changes. If you are thinking of trying the DASH diet check with your GP first in case there are any special circumstances that might make it unsuitable for you.
Other lifestyle factors that can help to lower blood pressure include avoiding smoking and minimising stress through relaxation. For more information on blood pressure and keeping yours at a healthy level visit bloodpressureuk.org.
Jo Lewin holds a degree in nutritional therapy and works as a community health nutritionist and private consultant. She is an accredited member of BANT, covered by the association's code of ethics and practice.
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