I like to think of high blood pressure as the Rodney Dangerfield of heart conditions: Regardless of how dangerous it really is, it gets no respect. More than one in three adults has high blood pressure (and at some point in our lives, 9 out of 10 of us will have it), but Americans just don't seem too concerned.
Maybe that's because a large proportion of those with the diseaseâand yes, it is a diseaseâdon't even know they have it. A heart attack, if they're lucky enough to survive it, will scare people silly, clean up their diets, and reform their lifestyles. But for some reason, high blood pressure remains a sneaky, silent killer.
Take charge now, before it's too late
High blood pressure, aka hypertension, needs to be taken seriously. As we age, our pressure naturally creeps upâso keeping it as low as possible while you're young and able is key. Why's that? "High blood pressure is linked to 62% of strokes and 50% of all cardiovascular events," notes Frank Sachs, MD, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health. "The lower your blood pressure, the lower your risk for coronary heart disease and stroke."
The good news, however, is that for most of us, our blood pressure is directly linked to our weight, eating habits, and level of exerciseâand these are all things we have the power to change. Losing weight is still considered the most effective way to lower blood pressure, but you should also pay attention to two nutrients in your diet that directly impact your levels.
Sodium and potassium are key
A new review written by the Vanderbilt University Hypertension Institute shows that an optimal ratio of potassium to sodium may help millions of Americans reduce their risk of hypertension. The best-case scenario for potassium and sodium is suggested to be about a 5:1 ratio, but because our current eating habits are so out of whack (we eat twice the sodium and only half the potassium we need), the researchers say that boosting potassium and reducing sodium by any amount can help.
"Our review showed that an increase in potassium with a decrease in sodium is probably the most important dietary choice (after weight loss) that should be implemented to reduce cardiovascular disease," says lead author Mark Houston, MD, director of the Hypertension Institute at Saint Thomas Hospital and associate clinical professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
The recommended potassium intake is 4,700 mg/day, but national surveys show that 95% of Americans don't come anywhere near this amount. And while the American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (our body really only needs about 1,500), our intake is double or triple that due primarily to our love of salt, fast food, and processed, packaged foods.
What can you do to better mind your minerals? Use the tips below to boost your potassium, lower your sodium, and ease the tension deep within your arteries.
- Strive to eat fruits and veggies at all your meals and snacksâand aim for at least eight servings a day of these potassium-packed foods. Use fruits and vegetables (fresh, dried, or juice) when cooking and baking to boost potassium further.
- Enjoy beans, nuts, and seeds; fat-free and low-fat dairy products; and other potassium-rich foods and beverages that provide at least 10% of the Daily Value per serving.
- Use low-sodium or sodium-reduced soups, snacks, tomato products, and other processed packaged foods whenever possible. Choose products that contain less than 10-15% of the Daily Value for sodium whenever possible.
- Limit fast food and ask for lower-sodium options when eating out. Always have a side salad or veggie side dish to help neutralize the sodium with potassium.
- Use herbs and spices, lemon, and other sodium-free options to flavor your foods in place of table salt.
- Know your numbers: Normal blood pressure is anything less than 120/80 mg/Hg. Prehypertension is anything between 120/80 mg/Hg and 139/89 mg/HG, and full-blown hypertension is 140/90 or higher. Learn more about blood-pressure measurements here.
High-potassium, low-sodium options
The study authors suggest getting more of the following foods and drinks; all contain less than 50 mg of sodium per serving.
Chart adapted from Clinical Management of Hypertension (Professional Communications, 2008).
By Julie Upton, RD