Making changes to lower your hypertension risk

By Donna Sandidge

New guidelines announced this fall for high blood pressure, or hypertension, should prompt many to consider changes in their diets and activity levels to reduce their risks of having a stroke, developing heart disease and damaging vital organs.

In November, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology updated their hypertension guidelines to help individuals identify and address the potentially deadly condition much earlier. About half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure doubling the risk of cardiovascular complications compared to those with a normal level of blood pressure. The new guidelines set the threshold for Stage 1 hypertension at 130 (systolic)/80 (diastolic) mm Hg, down from the previous level of 140/90 mm Hg. A normal blood pressure reading is less than 120/80 mm Hg. An elevated reading is between 120-129 systolic and less than 80 diastolic pressure.

High blood pressure is a major health issue in the U.S., but the best treatments are readily available: diet modification and exercise. Choosing a healthier diet and getting more exercise are now the cornerstones for treating Stage 1 hypertension. Medications remain the mainstay for blood pressure higher than 130/90, or at lower levels if the overall risk for heart disease is already increased. Making gradual changes to those lifestyle choices in 2018 can reduce your hypertension risks and enhance your overall health. To help you get started on a healthier 2018, this last Health Watch of 2017 will look at shifting your diet to healthier food choices, and 2018’s first Health Watch will look at how to gradually increase your recreational activity levels.

What are some simple guidelines to improve your diet?

Choose a 9-inch diameter plate and divide it into quarters. Half of the plate is filled with non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli, greens, squash, tomatoes and peppers, to name a few. Steam, bake or roast the vegetables, or sauté with a small amount of olive or canola oil rather than using butter or margarine. These vegetables are naturally high in nutrition value, but lower in calories than other foods; this is the part of the plate where “seconds” are OK. Include a variety of colors for the vegetables and avoid deep-frying or adding heavy sauces and cheese.

The third quarter of the plate is for whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, whole-grain pasta) or starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas). Limit refined grains, like white rice and white bread, because the body rapidly turns them into sugar. Your meal’s protein goes in the final quarter space. Choose the healthiest sources of protein, such as fish, skinless poultry, beans and soy; cut back on red meat and completely avoid bacon, cold cuts and other processed meats.

For liquids, nothing is better than water. Avoiding drinks with added sugar, such as soft drinks and juices, is an important place to start. If you drink coffee or tea, avoid or minimize sugar or creamer.

And finally, do not forget to enjoy some delicious fruit, fresh or canned without additional sugar. Yogurt (both milk and non-dairy types) with fresh fruit makes for a healthy dessert.

Is there a recommended diet plan?

The DASH diet plan, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is a great approach, proven in well-done medical studies to lower blood pressure and assist in weight loss. Similar to the healthy plate approach described above, DASH is rich in fruits, vegetables, fat-free or low-fat milk products, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds and nuts. The National Institutes of Health has information on the DASH diet and meal planning. Go to and search for DASH diet. While you are there, check NIH’s “Your Guide to Lowering Blood Pressure.”

                  What are some effective ways to shift to a healthier style of eating?

  • Eat slowly and pay attention to your food. Eating in front of the TV or computer distracts you from paying attention to what you are choosing and how much is on on your plate. Make a conscious effort to pay attention to how the food tastes, chewing slowly, and returning your fork or spoon to the table between bites.
  • Eat the vegetables on your plate first, followed by the protein portion and, lastly, the starch or carbohydrates.
  • Prepare extra meals and snacks and package in single-serving size in advance so you can turn to those when you are hungry and in a hurry.
  • When dining out, read the menu in advance so you have a plan to make healthy food choices.

                  What foods can help reduce the risk of hypertension?
Several studies have shown some foods can help reduce blood pressure:

  • Fatty fish such as salmon (but not leaner fish, such as cod).
  • Whole grains in place of refined, processed forms such as white flour and white rice.
  • Flax seed has been shown to reduce blood pressure. Sprinkle one to two tablespoons of ground flax seed on breakfast cereal, oatmeal, salads or vegetables.

Use food labels to make better choices.

  • Look at the label’s serving size and how many servings you are actually eating.
  • Ingredients such as sucrose, glucose and high-fructose corn syrup, add sugar to your diet. Make sure added sugars are not one of the first few ingredients listed on the label.
  • Look for words that you recognize on the ingredients list to avoid choosing highly processed foods.
  • Choose foods that have no trans fats listed on the label and very low – 5 percent or less – saturated fat content.
  • Look at the sodium content. Choose foods that keep your daily sodium consumption at less than 2,300 milligrams. Those with hypertension and older adults in general tend to be salt-sensitive, so a daily limit of 1,500 milligrams – about three-quarters of a teaspoon – is a more appropriate intake level.

Locally, the Cayuga Center for Healthy Living will have a series of monthly classes starting Jan. 18 that cover diet, meal planning and healthy lifestyle changes. For information, call (607) 252-3590.


Donna Sandidge is the medical director of the Cayuga Center for Health Living. She holds board certifications from American Board of Internal Medicine, the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Allergy and Immunology. For information on the diet and lifestyle programs at the Cayuga Center for Healthy Living, call (607) 252-3590.

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