High blood pressure, medically known as hypertension, means your blood pressure is consistently too high and that your heart has to work harder to pump blood around your body. If left untreated, it can lead to heart and circulatory diseases like heart attack or stroke. Fortunately, you can lower a high reading by making healthy lifestyle changes.
Modifying your diet is key and certain combinations have been shown to confer particular benefits.
According to research published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests the optimal combination is low sodium (salt) intake and adherence to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.
The DASH diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy products.
To arrive at their verdict, researchers recruited a total of 412 participants to eat either a typical westernised control diet or the DASH diet.
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Within the assigned diet, participants ate foods with high, intermediate, and low levels of sodium for 30 consecutive days each, in random order.
So, what did they find out?
The DASH diet was associated with a significantly lower systolic blood pressure at each sodium level; and the difference was greater with high sodium levels than with low ones.
As compared with the control diet with a high sodium level, the DASH diet with a low sodium level led to a mean systolic blood pressure that was 7.1 mm Hg lower in participants without hypertension, and 11.5 mm Hg lower in participants with hypertension.
What do these numbers mean?
Blood pressure is recorded with two numbers. The systolic pressure (higher number) is the force at which your heart pumps blood around your body.
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The diastolic pressure (lower number) is the resistance to the blood flow in the blood vessels.
They’re both measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg).
In their concluding remarks, the researchers in the study noted that reducing sodium intake and the DASH diet both lower blood pressure substantially.
But greater effects were observed when the two dietary approaches were combined, they added.
How much salt should you have in your diet?
According to UK dietary guidelines, adults should have no more than six grams of salt a day – that’s about one teaspoon.
“It is the sodium in salt that contributes to high blood pressure and it is present in all types of salt including sea salt, flakes, crystals and flavoured salt,” warns the British Dietetic Association (BDA).
There are a number of simple ways you can cut your salt intake.
BDA recommends you:
- Remove the salt pot from the table to avoid adding extra salt to your meals.
- Once you are used to this, try reducing the salt you add when cooking and make more use of herbs and spices.
- There is no need to add salt if you are using a stock cube as they contain lots of salt, try using a reduced salt stock cube.
- Some people like to use a salt substitute, made from potassium chloride. However as your food will still taste salty, it won’t help you get used to a less salty taste. Salt substitutes are not suitable for some people, for example those with kidney problems or heart failure. Check with your doctor before using them.
- Try to reduce the amount of processed foods you eat. Three quarters of the salt we eat is hidden in manufactured foods, ready meals and takeaways, so it will help if you eat less of these.
- If you are unable to cook from fresh, check the label for lower salt varieties when you do need to use them. As a guideline, less than 0.3g salt (or 0.1g sodium) per 100g of food is ‘a little’ and over 1.5g salt (or 0.6g sodium) per 100g is ‘a lot’.
In addition to improving your diet, regular exercise is integral to blood pressure control.
The NHS explains: “Being active and taking regular exercise lowers blood pressure by keeping your heart and blood vessels in good condition.”
According to the health body, regular exercise can also help you lose weight, which will also help lower your blood pressure.
“Adults should do at least 150 minutes (two hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as cycling or fast walking, every week,” it adds.