Blood Pressure and Diet: Why Salt is Only Part of the Story

Healthy Beet HummusIf you’re worried about your blood pressure, then it’s time to put down the reduced sodium potato chips! A “low sodium” version of the standard American junk food diet isn’t going to do your heart many favors.

Keeping an eye on sodium intake is important. But obsessively counting grams of sodium from various food packages is no longer necessary once you start choosing fruits, vegetables and whole foods in their natural, unprocessed state, rather than relying on packaged convenience foods.

Instead of looking for “low sodium” chips in the grocery store, skip the chip aisle all together, and stock up on carrots, watermelon, and low fat yogurt. Additionally, by centering your meals on produce (choosing a fruit salad instead of French fries, or bean and vegetable chili instead fried chicken), your sodium intake will fall naturally. Make it a challenge to see just how much produce you can incorporate into your meals.

What does the science have to say?

Healthy GranolaAccording to the groundbreaking DASH study, eating a diet loaded with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low fat dairy (also known as the DASH diet) without decreasing sodium intake can decrease systolic blood pressure (the top number in your blood pressure reading) by 5.5 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number in your blood pressure reading) by 3 mm Hg. The results for patients with hypertension are even more profound: 11.4 mm Hg decrease for systolic and 5.5 mm Hg decrease for diastolic. (Note: ideal blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg).

The follow up to this study, DASH II, found that reducing sodium intake to low levels without altering dietary patterns decreases systolic blood pressure by 6.7 mm Hg. This is a huge improvement, but as evidenced above, similar results can be achieved just by eating a healthy diet!

How does this translate into everyday food choices?

Healthy Broccoli Cheddar Twice Baked Potatoes made with Greek yogurtVegetable soups and low fat cottage cheese are foods often considered off limits if you’re trying to lower your blood pressure. But these foods actually have beneficial nutrients (magnesium and calcium) that help offset the sodium in your body. And by preparing vegetable soups from scratch (using low sodium broth or stock, or even water), rather than picking up a shockingly salty can from the supermarket, you keep control of your salt intake. To learn more about the DASH diet, see this article.

Obviously, the most optimal results come from following the DASH diet AND decreasing sodium intake. But if it takes a little bit of seasoning to help you get your 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables, I say go for it! Nutrition and public health expert Marion Nestle made similar comments on recent health studies analyzing sodium and blood pressure:

“People don’t eat salt; they eat foods containing salt, and foods high in salt tend to be high in other things best consumed in small amounts. The studies also talk about the protective effects of potassium, best obtained from vegetables. Eat a lot of vegetables and not too much junk food, and you don’t have to worry about any of this.”

For heart healthy recipe ideas, such as those pictured above, check out my recipe page!

– Kelly

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