Preventing high blood pressure with diet

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Sarah Baker, M.D., internal medicine physician with CHI Memorial Primary Care Associates – Atrium


Hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure, is a major risk factor for heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends your blood pressure be less than 130/80. Why does your blood pressure matter? High blood pressure gradually increases the pressure of blood flowing through all the arteries in your body, damaging or narrowing your arteries and ultimately limiting blood flow. Uncontrolled hypertension weakens your brain’s blood vessels, causing them to rupture or leak. This commonly known as a stroke. Hypertension can also cause damage to your kidneys and the delicate blood vessels in your eyes that lead to bleeding, blurred vision or even a loss of vision!

Although some people are genetically inclined to have high blood pressure even when they are eating well, most will benefit greatly from following a diet that’s low in sodium. DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is an eating plan that emphasizes eating more fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products while limiting foods high in cholesterol, saturated fat and trans fats. Instead of fatty red meat or process foods, choose whole grain breads, poultry, fish and nuts to keep you satisfied.   The standard DASH Diet recommends consuming up to 2,300 mg of salt per day. The lower sodium DASH diet allows for 1,500mg of salt per day.

Consistent, Manageable Changes
It’s difficult for anyone to make a drastic overhaul to their way of eating. I recommend picking one new thing to change in your diet at a time. Once you get that down, pick another small change from the DASH plan. It’s better to make lifestyle changes slowly than start a crash diet that you quit because it’s too hard. A good place to start is by cutting down your salt intake (not just how much salt you are put on your food but counting the salt in the food you are already eating). Other options include eating more fruits and veggies (four to five servings a day) or substituting whole wheat for white flour breads.

Diet and Exercise Make a Difference
Following DASH can lower your systolic blood pressure (the top number of your blood pressure) by 8 to 14 points. Heavy drinkers who cut back to moderate drinking can also lower systolic blood pressure (the top number of your blood pressure) by two to four points and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number of your blood pressure) by one to two points. Moderate drinking is one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. A drink is five ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits, or 12 ounces of beer.  

Changing your diet and limiting alcohol consumption can also lead to weight loss, which in turn can help lower your blood pressure. If you’re overweight or obese, every 20 pounds you lose you could drop your systolic pressure by five to 20 points. Lastly, exercise can lower your blood pressure, dropping your systolic blood pressure by four to nine points if you exercise for at least 30 minutes each day.

It’s worth mentioning again that properly controlled blood pressure contributes to a healthy life by reducing your risk of strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure and other conditions. Following a healthful diet that’s low in sodium is a great place to start. But if these changes aren’t making a difference in keeping your blood pressure under control, your next move is to talk with your doctor about blood pressure medication.

Do you have a primary care physician you trust? Sarah Baker, M.D. is welcoming new patients. To schedule an appointment at CHI Memorial Primary Care Associates – Atrium, call (423) 648-8110.

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Karen Long
Media Communications Specialist 

Doctor Talk, CHI Memorial's blog, focuses on health and welness.