High blood pressure — or hypertension — is a problem for 1 in every 3 American adults. This means that approximately 75 million people in the U.S. are at risk for heart disease and stroke, the leading causes of death in the U.S.
Blood pressure — the force of blood on the sides of the arteries that carry blood from your heart through your body — normally rises and falls throughout the day. However, if it stays high for too long, it can damage your heart and lead to serious health problems.
Unhealthy behaviors, such as eating foods high in sodium and low in potassium, can increase your risk of hypertension. This is why Dr. Sabrina Falquier, an internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy, believes in using food as medicine to improve your health.
“I have conversations with my patients daily about how to empower their health through food,” she says. “It is not uncommon for a patient to leave my office with a recipe in hand.”
According to Dr. Falquier, there is much you can do with your diet to improve your blood pressure without, or in addition to, medications. To start, she shares the advice of Michael Pollan, an award-winning author and journalist who writes about culinary science and medicine: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
“Although it is seven simple words, they hold so much truth,” Dr. Falquier says.
However, Dr. Falquier recognizes that it can be confusing trying to determine the best way to eat to improve your health — so confusing that we often fall for quick-fix, drastic diets.
“Yes, you may lose weight in the short term, but quick-fix diets are usually hard to sustain and can have long-term negative health consequences,” she says. “You have to ask yourself what is your goal — quick weight loss that you will likely gain right back, or long-term improved health?”
If your goal is to improve your diet and your health, Dr. Falquier offers the following seven tips:
- Fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits with every meal.
They can be fresh or frozen, though avoid canned when possible, as they usually contain added salt or sweeteners. Vegetables can be served raw, roasted or grilled.
- Choose grains wisely.
Fill one-quarter of your plate with whole, rather than processed, grains such as quinoa, farro, barley, amaranth, teff, freekeh, oats or whole-wheat pasta. If you are a rice lover, consider choosing red, brown or black — also known as forbidden rice — instead of white rice. When craving bread, stick to whole-grain breads with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
- Consider other sources of protein.
Fill one-quarter of your plate with a protein of your choice. Try eating more plant-based protein sources — such as beans, nuts and legumes — and limit red meats, which can increase your risk of heart disease.
- Eat fats, but choose wisely.
Fats are part of a healthy diet, but the type of fat makes a difference to your heart health. Getting fats from plant sources is best. Eat olives, avocados and nuts, and use olive oil to make dressings, sautés or roast vegetables. Avoid trans fats, which are found in margarine, snack foods, packaged baked goods and fried fast foods.
- Stay hydrated.
Choosing water for hydration over soda, sugar-sweetened coffee drinks or juices — which fill you with empty calories and can change your taste buds to seek out ultra-sweet foods — is best. Adjust your palate by moving toward drinks with natural sweetness from berries or other fruits, and soda will soon likely taste too sweet.
- Get your calcium from products other than milk.
The emphasis on having dairy products in our day-to-day diet is primarily to provide needed calcium. Calcium sources other than milk include leafy-green vegetables, certain mineral waters and nuts. If you do eat dairy products for your calcium, plain yogurt is best because it gives you the benefit of gut-healthy probiotics and is a good protein source.
- Limit the amount of sodium in your diet.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium — the equivalent of a little over one-half teaspoon of salt — per day for most adults, especially those with hypertension. Frozen meals and fast food often contain a salt content far beyond any health recommendation; read the labels. Use herbs and spices instead of salt to season your meals and enhance flavor.
Along with improving your daily diet, Dr. Falquier recommends a daily exercise routine. “Just move your body — 30 minutes a day of walking, running or even dancing can have a tremendously positive effect on your health,” she says.