Hypertension is one of the more common heart problems facing Americans and yet often goes untreated, as its symptoms can be difficult to pin down to a single, identifiable cause. Blood pressure is considered elevated when the rate is above 120/80 mmHg, which means that the artery tissues are being stretched past their normal limit for extended periods of time. The danger lies in the heart overworking and that stress causes damage to arteries and other organs. When this is undetected, it can lead to heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, and blindness. There are fairly simple methods for the prevention and control of high blood pressure, but one must be actively aware of these techniques to change a lifestyle.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute developed an eating guide called Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH). This eating guide is not only for adults with prehypertension or hypertension, but is a healthy eating plan for anyone who wants to prevent or control blood pressure. This eating plan helps lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and reduce inflammation of the heart.
Every component of the DASH eating plan has a health benefit which is the basis for its inclusion in the eating plan. Foods low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat reduce the unnecessary and damaging substances entering the bloodstream. Fruits and vegetables are a source of magnesium, potassium, and fiber, and eating several servings of these each day has been shown to lower blood pressure. The potassium in your diet should come from natural foods as opposed to supplements because the potassium naturally present in foods is the type that favors acid-base metabolism, which helps your body and can prevent developing kidney stones or bone loss. Poultry is another source of magnesium, and also provides significant amounts of protein. Small portions of certain nuts are excellent for providing energy, fiber, magnesium, and potassium. Fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products are an excellent source of calcium and protein, while keeping out some of the unnecessary fats that are found in whole fat milk products. Whole grains provide energy and fiber. Fish add protein and essential oils to the diet. Sweets, added sugars, and beverages containing sugar should be used in moderation, and it is smart to choose foods whose labels indicate low fat content.
One of the best ways to start the DASH eating plan is to record your current diet and then compare it with the charts on the recommended foods under the DASH guidelines. The DASH eating plan is not a substitution for medication controlling high blood pressure, so please continue medication if you are on it, even if you adopt the DASH plan. Plan some recipe options for your week so that when you go to the grocery store, you know which foods you need to purchase that fit within your goal for the DASH diet. A little planning ahead will make your daily decision on what to cook for dinner much easier!
The DASH eating plan works best in conjunction with other lifestyle changes, such as adding physical exercise to your weekly routine, losing weight if that is needed for the individual, and reducing alcohol consumption. Since the DASH diet is high in fruits and vegetables, it automatically reduces a person’s sodium consumption since those foods contain less than the processed foods that can take over the typical American diet. Awareness when choosing what to eat helps limit sodium intake, ultimately leading toward adopting a healthier diet.
If you think the DASH diet is right for you, please look at this brochure: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash/new_dash.pdf. In it, you will find detailed descriptions of each component of the DASH diet. Toward the end of the brochure, there is a week-long menu that gives you an idea of meal options and the simplicity of this eating approach. Making changes in one’s diet is not as daunting a task as it may seem, and it works tremendously to head toward a more heart healthy lifestyle.
Ellen Bosserman, RMH Heart Check intern