It’s estimated that high blood pressure, clinically called hypertension, affects one in three adults in the United States – that's around 100 million people! The American Heart Association (AHA) also suspects another third of Americans have higher than normal blood pressure – while it may be a warning sign for future hypertension, it’s not quite high enough to be categorized as such right now. So, what is this disease that affects so many people, and how can diet help keep it under control?
Measuring healthy blood pressure
Blood pressure is the force of your blood pumping against blood vessel walls. The heart pumps blood into major arteries, which shuttle blood to the entire body. High blood pressure occurs when the pressure is higher than normal, making your heart work harder to get blood to your body. Your blood pressure naturally rises and falls throughout the day, but the risk occurs when blood pressure rises and stays up. Long-term high blood pressure can damage your heart and cause other health problems, including heart attacks and strokes.
Blood pressure readings consist of two numbers – systolic (the top number) and diastolic (the bottom number). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines normal blood pressure as below 120/80 mm Hg. The systolic number (in this case, 120) refers to the amount of pressure in your arteries during the contraction of your heart muscle. The diastolic number (in this case, 80) refers to your blood pressure when your heart muscle is between beats.
While there is a “normal” blood pressure, some people have naturally lower or naturally higher blood pressures. Be sure to consult your doctor about what a normal blood pressure looks like for you.
Preventing and managing high blood pressure
While there’s no singular cause of hypertension, there are several factors that can increase your risk of developing hypertension, including:
- Age – The risk of hypertension naturally increases as you age, usually in stages. A person in their forties may have moderately elevated blood pressure compared to someone in their twenties. This can be from loss of blood vessel flexibility, hormonal changes (like menopause), and increased sensitivity to sodium.
- Gender – Men are more likely to develop high blood pressure before the age of 45, but the risk levels out between men and women until around age 60. As women age past 60, they have a higher risk due to hormonal changes that cause estrogen levels to decline.
- Race – A 2017 report from the CDC found non-Hispanic black adults had the highest risk (40.3%) for developing hypertension, while non-Hispanic Asian adults had the lowest risk (25%).
- Preexisting conditions – Diseases that place excess stress on the heart, like diabetes, sleep apnea, and kidney disease, can increase the risk for developing hypertension.
- Family history – Genetic factors in some people can play a role in the risk for hypertension.
The biggest risk factors of all for developing high blood pressure are lifestyle habits, including diet. Studies have shown a high-salt diet vastly increases your chance of developing hypertension. The easiest way to prevent high blood pressure is by eating a healthy, well-rounded diet that works for you and avoiding foods that worsen high blood pressure.
Always consult your doctor before changing your diet. When you are ready to implement diet and lifestyle changes, consulting with a nutritionist, dietitian, or Health Coach can be helpful in creating sustainable habits.
Excessive salt consumption leads to water retention, which can raise blood pressure. Some foods, like soy sauce and salted nuts, are easy to look out for. But many foods have hidden sodium, like canned foods and cured meats, which can often contain several times the recommended daily amount of salt (about one teaspoon).
Cooking at home, as opposed to eating at a restaurant or getting takeout, allows you to better manage the amount of salt you're consuming, and opting for lots of herbs and spices will help make meals more flavorful and enjoyable.
Sugar can disrupt your metabolism and cause an excess of insulin to be created, which constricts your blood vessels, thus raising blood pressure. Watch out for hidden sugars in everyday foods – ketchup, salad dressings, yogurt, and even “healthy” smoothies can have upwards of eight teaspoons of sugar per serving, which would make blowing past the AHA’s recommended daily limit of 6–9 teaspoons easy during a day’s worth of eating.
Foods high in trans or saturated fat
Prepared meals are easy to grab and eat but can be full of trans and/or saturated fats. Moderation is key as consuming too many of these kinds of fats increases your LDL cholesterol. This can cause buildup in your arteries known as “plaque,” increasing your risk for high blood pressure. As tempting as they may be, avoiding packaged, processed foods, like doughnuts, frozen pizzas and dinners, and potato chips, will help lower your risk of hypertension.
Not only is it often full of sugar, but alcohol raises your blood pressure. After the first drink, your blood vessels relax and dilate, but at higher levels, alcohol works in reverse, constricting your arteries and putting more stress on your heart.
The AHA recommends men drink no more than one or two drinks a day and women drink no more than one drink a day. One drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits, or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits.
Looking for some healthier alternatives to your favorite alcoholic beverages? IIN grads Beth Ritter Nydick and Tara Roscioli wrote Clean Cocktails, which explores spirits that utilize fresh juices, gentle sweeteners (like honey and maybe syrup), and anti-inflammatory spices (like cinnamon, cayenne, and tumeric).
Whole-milk dairy products
There are lots of conflicting statistics around dairy products and heart health. Some research shows that while low-fat dairy products typically provide much-needed calcium in your diet, whole-milk dairy products contain more fat than your body needs. Other studies have shown the fat in dairy can actually lower your risk for cardivascular disease.
If you'd rather try one of the many varieties of dairy-free milks available today, there are almond, coconut, and oat milks, to name a few. Just be sure to check the sugar content as they can contain high levels of sugar, other sweeteners, and additives.
Like packaged dinners, red meat can contain high levels of LDL cholesterol, and consuming it too often can put unnecessary pressure on your heart. But not all red meat is created equal – opt for leaner cuts, extra-lean ground beef, and “choice” or “select” grades of meat. You can also switch out steaks with turkey, skinless chicken breast, or fish fillets, like salmon and cod.
Foods that help with high blood pressure
A heart-healthy diet can help prevent hypertension and heart disease. There are several foods that can prevent and manage high blood pressure, including:
- Whole grains
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Low-fat or nonfat dairy products, or any dairy in moderation
- Lean proteins, like turkey and fish
- Legumes, like beans and peas
- Healthy fats found in foods such as nuts, seeds, avocado, and cold water fish, like salmon
Potassium-rich foods, like bananas and sweet potatoes, can help lower blood pressure as well as foods high in fiber and antioxidants, like pomegranates and leafy greens.
The AHA recommends the DASH diet for heart health, and following it, or any low-sodium, low-sugar, trans fat–free diet, has been shown to help maintain heart health in the long term. However, you should always speak to your doctor before starting any new diet, especially if you’re looking to manage existing high blood pressure.
The bottom line
Focusing on what you eat is a good start to managing your heart health. While some risks are unavoidable, reading food labels, avoiding excess salt and sugar, and eating whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean meats can help keep your heart healthy and lower your risk for high blood pressure.
There’s no one way to keep your body healthy as everyone is different. IIN’s core concept of bio-individuality speaks to this idea; knowing your body best is the first step in your health journey. Learn more about how an IIN education can help you kick-start this journey by downloading our Curriculum Guide today.