You’ve just found out you have high blood pressure. After the initial shock wears off, you may wonder, “now what?” Your doctor may have told you to lose weight, to change your eating and that you’d need to start medication. All in one breath, as if it were just that simple.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the DASH diet eating plan. It’s one of the REAL ways you can make SMALL changes to help control your blood pressure. Keep reading to find out more about nutrition and heart health!
About High Blood Pressure
Before we get into how to eat for high blood pressure, let’s take a closer look at what high blood pressure is all about.
Did you know about ½ of all Canadians 65 and over have high blood pressure, also called Hypertension? That it’s often called ‘the silent killer’ because most people do not feel it and don’t have symptoms of a problem. There is often no warning signs and may only be found when a doctor measures your blood pressure.
High blood pressure is more common with age for both men and women. But women who are 65 years or more are more likely to have high blood pressure than men.
Although you can’t feel it, high blood pressure means your heart is working harder than it should. Over time, this can lead to wear and tear on your heart and more strain on other organs like your eyes, brain and kidneys.
The good news though is that there are simple ways you can change your eating to help lower your risk of 1) having high blood pressure and 2) it getting worse.
But first, it’s helpful to understand what those numbers mean.
Understanding blood pressure numbers
There are 2 numbers that show how hard your heart is working. They are measures of the pressure of your blood against your vessels during the 2 parts of a heart beat:
- systolic pressure (higher, top number) – when your heart contracts to push blood out into your body
- diastolic pressure (bottom, lower number) – when your heart relaxes to fill back up with blood
What should my blood pressure number be?
Low risk: 120/80 mmHg
Moderate risk: 121/80 – 139-89 mmHg
Increased risk: more than 140/90 mmHg
The higher either of these numbers is, and the longer it stays high, the more possible damage to your veins and arteries. Your doctor can diagnose high blood pressure when your numbers are 135/85 mmHg.
Once you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, you will work with your doctor to find out what your numbers should get down to.
If you also have diabetes you are more likely to have high blood pressure. For most people with diabetes and hypertension, your doctor may aim for a lower number than for someone without diabetes (130/80 mmHg). This is because having diabetes makes you more at risk of having heart health complications even if you don’t have high blood pressure.
If your doctor finds that your numbers are high on multiple visits, they’ll likely ask you to change your diet. Depending on how high your numbers are, they may also ask you to start medication at the same time.
The good news? Even if you start taking medication to get your blood pressure under control, with changes to your eating you might be able to cut down on that medication … or even stop taking it (under your doctor’s supervision). More on this in a bit.
What causes high blood pressure?
High blood pressure can be caused by many things – some you can control (either directly or indirectly) and some you cannot.
Areas you have some control over:
- unhealthy diet
- alcohol intake
- activity level
- higher body weight
- sleep apnea
- kidney disease
Areas you can’t control:
- family history (genetics)
As you can see by these lists, there are things within your control and a huge one is diet! Even if you have other health concerns, such as in this list, it doesn’t mean that changes in your eating can’t help with your blood pressure. The good news is that in many cases, the changes you make for your blood pressure can also help other areas including diabetes, weight and kidney disease.
Risks of having high blood pressure
I know, I know … you don’t want to have to take another medication. Taking medication to get a handle on the situation though might not be a bad thing. When you weigh out the pros and cons of having high blood pressure for too long vs bringing those numbers down, you can make a better choice for you.
Some of the risks of having uncontrolled high blood pressure include:
- kidney disease
- heart attack
- eye problems
- heart failure
As I mentioned earlier, you might choose to start taking medication in order to get your numbers under control. But after that, there is a chance for you to work together with your doctor and dietitian to lower or maybe even stop those pills.
The DASH diet eating plan
There is ample proof that a change in your diet can lower your blood pressure. For many people this may mean they won’t have to start medication or they may be able to lower or stop their medication once their blood pressure is normal again.
This proof comes from many experiments about a diet called the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)
About the DASH diet experiments
- the DASH eating plan showed the best results compared to other diet types, including the Mediterranean diet
- even a little change was better than none! some people didn’t change their diet to follow the DASH diet perfectly. But those people who changed their some of their eating habits to be closer to the DASH diet saw results
- since the original DASH diet experiments in the 1990’s, more experiments have tried other versions of the DASH diet with good success as well, possibly making it easier to follow this way of eating
- the experiments that had Registered Dietitians guiding and monitoring the participants’ diet had the best results
What does the DASH diet eating plan look like?
Generally, compared to a typical Canadian diet it means:
- higher fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes, dairy, whole grains, healthy fats
- lower salt and saturated fat
Sounds easy enough, right?
For many people this sound easy to do. But as I’ve found through working with people in making changes, it’s not usually the ‘what’ that’s the problem!
I’m willing to bet that you know what you should be eating for your heart health. Where people stumble is the how. How to make it work in your everyday life? How to make it work during special occasions? How to make it work when you just don’t feel like working at it? How can you make eating for heart health be the easy and convenient choice in your life?
3 tips for starting the DASH diet eating plan
As mentioned above, the people who had the best results with their DASH diet also worked with a dietitian. As with any dietary change you’re planning to make, consulting with your doctor and your dietitian are the best first steps. Once you’ve talked with your doctor about your blood pressure and found the number you should aim for, you can start with these 3 tips:
- Record what you eat – Writing down what you eat is the most effective way to start, no matter what the change is that you want to make!
- Find the easy wins – Maybe you’ve been putting off things like cutting back on salt because you didn’t think you had any problems. Now, while you’re feeling motivated, is the time to start with the things you just know you can change. Choose 1-2 things you can change this week and just do it. Here’s an example of a DASH diet friendly dish from the MayoClinic:
- Consult with a dietitian – a dietitian can help teach you tools to make heart healthy food choices. Perhaps you want to learn how to read food labels so you feel more confident in your grocery shopping. Or how to swap ingredients in your favourite recipes to make them more heart healthy. Or you need some help setting up your meal planning process. Lots of information is available online, but meeting with an RD will help you get right to the point and choose the steps that are specific to you and your health.
The best time to consider working with a Registered Dieititan
In my opinion though, the best time to work with a dietitian is after you’ve started making changes! It’s after you’ve started that you know what you need to help keep you going. This is when working with someone can help you find the biggest roadblocks find those solutions that fit your life.
Some of the common roadblocks clients come to me with include:
- controlling cravings
- having to eat differently than their family
- knowing what food to choose when eating out
- giving up when they couldn’t follow their ‘new diet’ 100% all the time
- or even just the idea of being ‘on a diet’
If this sounds like you, I have a variety of services that can help. From working together to build a customized plan for your unique life, to helping you sort out the roadblocks cluttering your path to success, to learning strategies from the popular Craving ChangeTM program. Take a look at your options for working with me to take back control over your heart health.
You may also be interested in reading other articles related to heart health on my blog:
Stocking your Pantry – a Reader Q&A about cooking more at home after a heart attack
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on empowering people with young minds and aging bodies as they enter their retirement years and beyond. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.