Although almost everyone knows that high blood pressure can lead to heart attack and stroke, not everyone knows exactly how. This may be one reason half of adults in the United States have high blood pressure and only one in four have it under control, according to the CDC. But how do you lower your blood pressure?
Most people probably assume the answer is “put the salt shaker down”. Although it’s good advice, not adding salt to your food is just a healthy practice to help lower your blood pressure. There are many other eating habits and food preparation techniques you can use every day to achieve a low sodium diet. We’ll tick off seven of the best below, but first some blood pressure basics that will prime your pump, so to speak, into action.
You can think of your circulatory system as a water pump (your heart) and pipes (your blood vessels). Blood pressure is the force exerted by blood against the walls of arteries as your heart pumps blood through these pipes to move oxygen throughout your body. Healthy blood vessels are flexible pipes that easily bend as needed to maintain steady blood flow. However, when the arteries become stiff or “hardened” and unable to expand, your heart has to work much harder, increasing the force needed to move blood through these pipes. It’s high blood pressure.
Long-term hypertension damages the lining of these delicate blood vessels. This can lead to a host of disorders, including enlarged heart muscle, heart failure and heart attack, stroke, dementia, kidney failure, vision damage and erectile dysfunction. You can see why you need to be a plumber for your heart and arteries. Take advantage of these convenient ways to eat and cook to lower your blood pressure.
When shopping, check nutrition labels carefully. “Labels that say things like ‘25% less sodium’ are often misleading because they only mean the product has less sodium than its original product,” warns Jamie Nadeau, RD, registered dietitian and owner of The Balanced Nutritionist. “Also keep in mind that many high sodium foods don’t taste very salty.”
Some surprising sources of sodium include bread, cheese, salad dressings and condiments. An example of this is cottage cheese, which contains about 373 mg of sodium in half a cup.
Eating more of the healthier foods, such as lentils, beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, will help lower your blood pressure, says Rhyan Geiger, RDN, owner of Phoenix Vegan Dietitian. “These foods support heart health not only because of their fiber content, but also because of the micronutrients and antioxidants they provide,” she says. Search in Nutrition Frontiers links increased fiber intake to lower blood pressure.
You can reduce your sodium intake by choosing dried over canned pasta and beans, which tend to use a lot of salt as a preservative, says the expert on the Eatthis.com medical review board and a registered dietitian nutritionist. Lisa R. Young, PhD, RDNauthor of Finally full, finally thin & The teller plan.
Also, use fresh meats instead of packaged and preserved ones. Fresh cuts of beef, chicken or pork contain naturally occurring sodium, but much less than is added during processing into products like bacon or ham, Young says. And if you must use canned beans and vegetables for convenience, rinse them first under running water to remove the sodium. An analysis by Virginia Tech’s Food Analysis Laboratory Control Center (FALCC) found that rinsing and draining canned vegetables with warm tap water reduces sodium content by 9-23%.
If your food needs a hint of salt to boost flavor, try kelp flakes, clinical nutritionist suggests Sara Kahn, MS, ICS, CDN.
“Kelp is a type of seaweed that has been dried and granulated and can be used in place of salt in cooking to provide a savory flavor,” says Kahn. “It is rich in iodine and offers other essential nutrients like magnesium, calcium and iron.”
Another alternative seasoning is gomasio or sesame salt. It can be used as a condiment on salads, soups, pastas, fish, chicken and more.
“Made from a mixture of toasted sesame seeds and a small amount of sea salt, it contains less sodium than table salt and offers calcium, potassium and iron,” says Kahn.
Low-sodium cooking can seem difficult at first, especially when it comes to preparing a meal for someone with salty taste buds. One way to mask the missing sodium is to generously season the meal with salt-free seasonings like herbs and spices.
“When a dish is well seasoned, it often doesn’t need as much salt,” explains Nadeau.
Use garlic, onion, lemon juice, onion powder and experiment with fresh and dried herbs and any spices from your spice rack. Not convinced garlic will satisfy the salty dog at your table? Get this: In a small study in Pakistan, people with hypertension were given samples of foods prepared with different amounts of salt. Results showed that participants preferred low-salt food samples with added garlic.
Do you have a bottle of soy sauce hidden in your fridge? Don’t throw it away. Turn it into a low-sodium soy sauce by diluting it with water, suggests Geiger.
“The low-sodium option at the store just has water added to make it less salty; you can do the same at home,” says Geiger.
Likewise, if you have potted sauces or canned vegetables that are high in sodium, you can reduce the overall salt content by combining them with lower sodium versions.
A serving of Ragu Old World Style Marinara Sauce, for example, contains nearly 500 mg of sodium, about one-third of the ideal daily limit of 1,500 mg for most adults recommended by the American Heart Association. Instead of using pot sauce, top your pasta with heart-healthy olive oil and garlic, suggests Young.
When you think about it, most of our dietary sodium does not come from the crystals we sprinkle on the salt shaker. We get salty from two main sources: processed foods and restaurant meals. One of the most effective ways to drastically reduce your sodium intake is to stop eating out. Cook more at home where you control your ingredients. But we recognize that most of us won’t stop eating out, so the best strategy is to know what you’re getting and try to choose lower sodium meals.
A few years ago, an observational study in the journal Appetite suggest that most people have no idea how much sodium they eat when eating out. Researchers found that a quarter of diners either couldn’t or wouldn’t estimate the sodium content of their meals. Of those who tried, 90% underestimated the amount.
The take home message? Be ready. Check the restaurant’s online menu beforehand. Make up your mind before you go and choose dishes that are low in sodium. Opt for steamed, baked, grilled or poached meals, which tend to be lower in sodium. Avoid fried, creamed and marinated meats, which generally contain much more sodium. Also avoid the bread basket because the breads are loaded with salt. Have a burger?
“Instead of cheese, ask for avocado for a creamy texture and added fiber,” adds Kahn.
“Ask for dressings and sauces on the side so you can control how much you use,” says Kahn. These supplements are usually very high in sodium.
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