If you have high blood pressure, you probably already know you have an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Fortunately, blood pressure levels aren’t set in stone, even if you’re genetically predisposed (meaning hypertension, or elevated blood pressure, runs in your family). In fact, blood pressure is one heart disease marker that’s thankfully flexible, according to Darlene Zimmerman, a registered dietitian with the Henry Ford Heart & Vascular Institute.
Healthy Eating For A Healthy Heart
What you eat, how much you exercise and how much stress you have in your life all combine to determine whether your blood pressure levels fall or rise. And while you can’t munch on certain foods and expect your blood pressure to drop (celery, anyone?), you can follow specific eating patterns that are proven to help stop hypertension.
“Most nutrition research today points toward specific eating patterns that lower blood pressure rather than individual foods,” says Zimmerman, who cites the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet as an example.
In fact, her six recommendations for a blood pressure-friendly diet are all key players in the DASH diet:
- Load up on fruits and vegetables. Countless studies show that loading up on fruits and veggies protects against the nation’s top killers: cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. These nutrient-rich gems are loaded with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, which help boost the body’s natural defense system and protect cells from damage. To get the most nutrient bang out of your produce, be sure to choose a rainbow of colors, suggests Zimmerman, since each color represents a different mix of beneficial plant nutrients.
- Eat more whole grains. Packed with fiber, whole grains not only help keep cravings in check, they also amp up the flavor in your favorite recipes. In fact, research shows that eating a diet rich in whole grains (such as quinoa and other ancient grains, oatmeal and brown rice) helps fend off heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some forms of cancer. That’s because they’re rich in vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting plant chemicals like phytosterols (which help reduce cholesterol levels), lignans (which keep blood sugar levels in check) and antioxidants (which help protect against cancer). What’s more, some of these nutrients can’t be found anywhere else. Look for food labels that say 100 percent whole grain or whole wheat and steer clear of anything that lists wheat flour or white flour as its first ingredient.
- Choose low- and no-fat dairy. The key here is checking labels. “It’s easy to grab a whole milk yogurt off the shelf thinking it’s low-fat,” says Zimmerman. Similarly, full fat and processed cheeses often hide saturated fat and sodium. Can’t stomach the taste of reduced and non-fat cheese? Full fat varieties of bold cheeses, including blue, feta and stilton, aren’t completely off the table since you can use a small amount of cheese and still get a lot of flavor.
- Select lean protein. Protein is the building block of all muscles and tissues; our bodies would literally fall apart without it. Trouble is, diets high in protein from animal sources also tend to be high in saturated fat – and that’s a huge risk for your heart. So keeping portions small and choosing lean protein (like skinless chicken, turkey and fish) are key. Buying beef? Look for the words “loin” or “round” in the name to ensure you’re getting a leaner cut. And whenever possible, opt for fish. Fish contains just small amounts of artery-clogging fat, and it’s full of vitamins, minerals and heart-healthy omega-3 fats, which help lower blood pressure and prevent blood clots.
- Limit sodium. One of the most important things you can do to keep blood pressure levels in check is to limit the amount of salt/sodium you take in. In keeping with recommendations for heart-healthy living, Zimmerman suggests staying below 2,300 mg of sodium daily (the amount in 1 teaspoon of salt). Unfortunately, that can be a tall order, even if you stay away from the saltshaker. Packaged and processed foods can be loaded with sodium. For example, just 1 whole dill pickle may contain 500 to 800 mg of sodium. Reading labels and ingredient lists can help you avoid the obvious offenders.
- Eat heart-healthy fats. Instead of butter, lard or bacon grease, use olive oil, canola oil, corn oil or vegetable oil when you’re cooking. These oils have heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats which can help lower cholesterol levels and your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Still having trouble reducing your blood pressure? Don’t hesitate to recruit your doctor or a registered dietitian for assistance. Sometimes medication is necessary to help nudge levels downward. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It just means you need a stronger weapon in your arsenal.
How healthy is your heart? Take the heart risk quiz now. Then, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or find a heart expert at henryford.com or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Darlene Zimmerman is a registered dietitian at the Henry Ford Heart & Vascular Institute and the author of the Heart Smart Cookbook, now in its third edition with more than 100,000 copies sold nationwide.
Heart Smart® is a registered trademark of the Edith and Benson Ford Heart & Vascular Institute at Henry Ford Hospital.