Blood pressure control diagram

Click on the image to learn how to use a blood pressure monitor.

A good blood pressure is a key part of keeping your heart healthy. However, if it gets too high, it can be a killer. There is no cure for high blood pressure (HBP), but it can be controlled. Many heart attacks, heart disease and strokes, and the needless early deaths they cause, can be prevented if blood pressure is kept under control.

Nearly a third of U.S. adults has HBP; only half of them have it under control. About 1,000 Americans die each day because they did not control their HBP. The overall death rate caused by HBP continues to climb in the United States, increasing 23 percent over the past 15 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Conversely, during the same period, the overall death rate from all causes dropped 21 percent. The increasing death rate from HBP is highest in men and women over age 45.

New national guidelines recommend that blood pressure should be less than 140/90 for those at risk for heart attack and stroke. For those who have heart disease and have already had a heart attack, stroke or ministroke (TIA), the recommended target is 130/80 or below. These are general guidelines, and your blood pressure target should be set by your doctor who is knowledgeable about your individual needs. For example, older, frail patients can become dizzy if their blood pressure is too low.

Follow these important lifestyle choices to help keep your blood pressure under control:

  • Watch what you eat, especially salty foods
  • Avoid tobacco smoke: directly from smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes; indirectly from others’ smoking; and where tobacco smoke has saturated the interiors of homes, buildings and vehicles (called third-hand smoke)
  • Get physical every day
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Reduce stress
  • Limit alcohol
  • Take your medications as prescribed
  • Learn to take your own blood pressure or find a handy place to have it checked regularly.

For many people, these lifestyle changes reduce blood pressure enough that they can avoid or even quit taking blood pressure medications. However, never change or stop taking your medications without a doctor’s approval.

Evaluate your diet

What you eat has a big effect on your blood pressure. Foods and beverages with a lot of salt, sugar or trans fats have been linked to high blood pressure. The tips below can help you learn how to cut back on these blood pressure boosters.

Salt or sodium occurs naturally in some foods. However, about 75 percent of our sodium comes from processed, prepackaged and restaurant foods. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 mg. of sodium a day. The average American consumes twice that amount.

Reduce the amount of salt in your food slowly, giving your taste buds time to adjust. Most people find that they eventually prefer lower-sodium foods and appreciate foods for their true flavor.

To help reduce the amount of salt in your diet:

  • Look for lower-sodium varieties of breads, crackers, cold-cuts and other cured meats like bacon.
  • Learn to check the Nutrition Facts label on all foods and compare different brands’ sodium levels. Salt can be labeled as sodium, sodium benzoate, disodium, monosodium glutamate (MSG) or sodium nitrite. (This link explains the Nutrition Label.)
  • Cook at home so you can control the amount of salt in your foods. Stick with whole, fresh foods that have a limited amount of processing.
  • Always taste before you salt. Add pepper, fresh lemon/lime, herbs, spices, and garlic or onions to add a flavor boost.
  • Drain and rinse canned beans and vegetables to cut the sodium by up to 40 percent.
  • Cook rice, pasta and hot cereal without salt.
  • Choose lower-sodium brands of condiments such as bottled salad dressings, ketchup, mustard, pickles, olives, relishes, dips, pasta sauce and salsa.
  • When buying fresh chicken or turkey, compare different brand’s sodium levels. Some are injected with a sodium solution that will be listed as “broth,” “saline,” or “sodium solution.”
  • Chose varieties of canned soups and soup mixes that are lower in sodium. Or, make a big batch of homemade soup and freeze it in portions for lunches.
  • When you must eat out, ask for reduced- or no-salt when your food is prepared.
  • Fast-food sandwiches can contain more than 100 percent of your daily sodium limit. Make your own sandwiches at home or replace some of the meat, cheese and condiments with fruits and veggies. Try lettuce, tomato, sweet peppers, onions, avocado, cucumber or sliced apple.
  • Avoid foods that are pickled, brined, barbecued, cured or smoked; don’t add soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, miso or au jus.
  • Control portion sizes because smaller also means less salt.

Try the DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) eating plan. It’s rich in fruits and veggies, whole-grains, lower-fat dairy products, beans, fish, skinless poultry and lean meats. It’s also low in salt, added sugar, saturated fats and red meats. You can link to the DASH plan here.

Watch out for added sugars in your foods and beverages. They will be listed in the ingredients as high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, agave nectar, barley malt syrup, dehydrated cane juice and others. Any word that ends in syrup or –ose (maltose or glucose) are sugars.

Avoid trans fats, which will be listed on a nutrition label as partially hydrogenated oil or hydrogenated oil. They can increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke because they raise your bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease your good cholesterol (HDL).

Throughout February, this blog will feature heart-health articles to help you keep your heart healthy. Next we’ll look at risk factors for heart problems, smoking and your heart and the importance of regular exercise.