A healthy diet is the first line of therapy in managing hypertension, or high blood pressure, and the DASH diet is the most commonly recommended — and research proven — eating plan to counter hypertension.
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The DASH eating pattern, named after the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension research trials, emphasizes fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and also includes regular consumption of nuts, seeds, dried beans and peas, lean poultry, fish, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. This eating plan also limits sodium, fat, added sugars and alcohol.
While no specific foods need to be completely avoided when you have hypertension, it helps to limit certain types of foods and drinks to help bring your blood pressure readings to target.
Soup can be a tasty way to incorporate more vegetables, whole grains and beans into your diet, but most soup is very high in sodium. Limiting high-sodium foods matters because excess dietary sodium is thought to increase blood volume and lead to a cascade of hormonal and blood vessel changes that ultimately worsen blood pressure.
Most canned, instant or restaurant soups contain at least 700 mg sodium per cup. In contrast, the 2017 hypertension clinical practice guidelines recommend that dietary sodium should be reduced by 1000 mg per day compared to usual intake, or optimally, limited to less than 1500 mg daily. If you like soup, try making your own, and season it with herbs, salt-free spices and low-sodium broth. Or try low-sodium canned soup.
Eating large or frequent portions of salty snack foods such as chips or puffed cheese snacks may also worsen your blood pressure. The culprit is not only the sodium content, but the potassium-sodium imbalance that occurs in the body when processed foods are the norm.
One of the reasons the DASH diet pattern works is because, when this plan is adhered to, dietary potassium exceeds sodium intake. This shift helps the body get rid of excess sodium and relaxes blood vessels, lowering blood pressure.
To include more potassium in your diet, choose fruits, vegetables and yogurt instead of sodium-laden chips or other packaged snack foods. If you have kidney disease, you might be advised to avoid excess dietary potassium, so speak with your doctor before making these adjustments.
Packaged Side Dishes
Grocery store aisles are filled with microwaveable and easy-to-prepare packaged foods. Many of these items, including seasoned rice or potatoes, macaroni and cheese or instant noodles can contain 500 to 1000 mg sodium — sometimes more — per serving.
Again, sodium isn't the only reason to limit or avoid these foods. A diet that emphasizes processed foods tends to be low in fiber, potassium and magnesium — nutrients which are both linked to better blood pressure control and abundant in the DASH diet.
For healthier side dishes, choose legumes such as dried beans or peas, or prepare whole grain sides such as brown rice, quinoa or whole wheat pasta — and season with fresh herbs or sodium-free seasonings instead of salt.
Processed Red Meats
Processed red meat has also been linked to an increase in blood pressure. One study compared the diet frequency of bacon, sausage, salami and ham to hypertension rates.
Women who ate these processed, high sodium meats 5 or more times weekly had a 17 percent higher rate of hypertension compared to rates in women who ate these meats less than once a week. Study authors did not find a link between unprocessed red meat intake and hypertension rates.
However, the research-proven DASH diet limits fish, chicken and lean red meats to no more than 6 ounces daily — and recommends red meat be included less often than other sources of protein.
Burgers, fries, enchiladas and fried chicken — traditional food items at fast food restaurants and food trucks — tend to be high in fat and sodium, and deficient in fiber. So if you find yourself eating at these restaurants frequently, or if you purchase take-out or ready-to-eat food on a regular basis, your blood pressure control may suffer.
If you need to grab a quick meal, choose wisely and frequent restaurants that offer main course salads, fruit and vegetable sides, and grilled chicken or fish instead of fried meats. And pack your lunch more often, so you can include meals and snacks that are more DASH-friendly.
Excess Alcohol or Energy Drinks
Commonly consumed beverages, such as alcohol, coffee and energy drinks, have also been studied for their blood pressure impact. Clinical practice guidelines outline an acceptable alcohol intake, for those who drink, of up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks daily for men. Alcohol intake that exceeds these levels can aggravate or cause hypertension.
Caffeine is known to temporarily increase blood pressure, but a few cups of coffee or tea isn't cause for concern, according to the American Heart Association. However, high-caffeine energy drinks may have a greater impact on blood pressure, according to research published in the July 2017 issue of "Journal of the American Heart Association," so it's best to limit or avoid these types of beverages.
Managing hypertension, or high blood pressure, is essential to reduce the risk of serious health problems including stroke, heart attack and kidney disease. Lifestyle management of high blood pressure includes a healthy, plant-centered, low sodium diet such as the DASH plan, weight loss and regular physical activity. In order to improve your blood pressure to target levels, medications may also be required, so work with your doctor on a blood pressure management plan that works for you.