I was doing what any self-respecting dietitian does with friends at the beach . . . reading the label on the bag of corn chips. I was surprised that this particular brand was lower in sodium than other snack foods I've seen.
"I've tried to follow a low sodium diet to lower my blood pressure," my friend said. "It's tough."
And having high blood pressure is tougher. Hypertension (high blood pressure) is the cause of more than 60 percent of strokes and almost half of all heart-related medical problems in the world, according to Dr. Lawrence Appel, who investigates dietary treatments to prevent and treat high blood pressure.
"Multiple dietary factors affect blood pressure," he says. "And we have every reason to believe that lower blood pressure is better."
Who benefits from these strategies? We all do, Appel says. Young people, old people. People with high blood pressure. People with normal blood pressure. And interestingly, African-Americans seem especially sensitive to the blood pressure lowering effects of reduced salt intake, increased potassium intake and the DASH diet.
So back to our picnic. Sandwiches made with whole grain bread (check), tuna (right-o), sliced tomatoes and fresh spinach (good job). Our drinks were unsweetened and I swear we just had a couple of mint cookies . . . and a few munches of corn chips. Maybe it's not as tough as we thought.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.
Here are the most current recommendations:
1. Lose weight.
Weight loss — even a modest weight loss of 10 pounds or so — lowers blood pressure, according to results from several clinical trials.
2. Cut the sodium.
Easier said than done, considering that 77 percent of the sodium chloride (salt) we eat comes from processed convenience foods. We need to eat fewer of these foods to stay within the recommended 1500 milligrams of sodium a day for good blood pressure control.
3. Eat more potassium.
More than 30 clinical trials have shown lower blood pressures in people who eat more potassium-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables. (Note: People with kidney disease may need to restrict potassium in their diets.)
4. Follow the DASH diet.
"Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension." This diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables (high in potassium) and low-fat dairy foods (calcium may have a beneficial effect on blood pressure, too). It also includes whole grains, nuts, poultry and fish and goes easy on fat, red meat and sugar. Several randomized controlled feeding trials found that this eating strategy significantly lowered blood pressure in as little as two weeks.
5. Cut back on alcohol.
Blood pressure is "dose-dependent" on alcohol intake . . . the more you drink, the higher your blood pressure. Cutting out alcohol or reducing intake to less than two drinks a day (men) or one drink a day (women) is an effective way to lower blood pressure, experts say. Remember that one drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.
6. Eat fewer carbs.
Recent studies looking to improve the DASH eating style have found that a little more protein or monounsaturated fat and a little less sugar and starch helped lower blood pressure even more than the traditional DASH diet.
7. Be more active.
Exercise combined with the DASH eating pattern can result in weight loss, a triple bonus strategy to reduce blood pressure.