Nearly one in three U.S. adults has high blood pressure—often called a “silent killer” because it usually presents no symptoms. Blood pressure reflects the amount of blood your heart pumps and the resistance it meets in your arteries: the more blood, and the narrower and more rigid your arteries (healthy vessels are elastic), the higher your blood pressure. The higher your blood pressure, the harder your heart has to work to do its job—which is why uncontrolled high blood pressure can sometimes lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Fortunately, eating a nutritious diet and leading an overall healthful lifestyle can help keep your blood pressure within a healthy range. The nutrition experts at EatingWell recommend the following steps to control blood pressure.
Being overweight increases your risk of developing high blood pressure. When you gain weight, the amount of blood circulating through your body increases. This increases the pressure of blood flow against your artery walls, which puts added strain on your heart. Studies suggest that, if you’re overweight, losing as little as 10 percent of your current weight can help lower your blood pressure.
Exercise makes your heart stronger so it can pump more blood with less effort. Research suggests that, for some people, regular exercise can improve blood pressure as much as some medications used to treat hypertension. Daily physical activity also can help prevent a “normal” blood pressure from creeping into a risky range—which often happens as one ages. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise daily. And stick with it: the benefits last only as long as you maintain your exercise regime.
Studies show that following an eating regime that medical experts call the DASH diet (its formal name is “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension”) helps lower blood pressure. The nutritionally balanced plan includes plenty of fruits and vegetables and several daily servings of low-fat dairy. It emphasizes whole (versus refined) grains and modest amounts of lean proteins, including poultry and fish, to minimize intake of unhealthy saturated fats. For a copy of the plan, visit http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash/how_plan.html
High intakes of sodium can cause you to retain more water, which increases the volume of blood circulating through your body. This translates to higher blood pressure. Most Americans consume too much sodium. Keep intake to less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day. If you already have high blood pressure, your doctor may advise eating even less: recent research suggests that consuming less than 1,500 mg daily is most effective for reducing blood pressure. See tips for reducing salt in your diet.
Fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium, a mineral that helps balance the amount of sodium in your cells. Particularly good sources of potassium include bananas, oranges, tomatoes, artichokes, lima beans, spinach, dried prunes and raisins. Low-fat dairy is a good source of the mineral too.
Drinking alcohol can raise blood pressure (though no one knows exactly why). If you drink, do so moderately—that means one drink a day for women, two drinks for men. Do you know what constitutes one drink?