Lowering Blood Pressure: It's a 2-Step Process

Making the right choices is key

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

If you're trying to control or prevent high blood pressure, you may be watching the salt in your diet (along with losing weight, eating plenty of fruits and veggies, and limiting alcohol). The WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Program can work well for people on a low-salt diet, as long as the sodium restriction is not severe (less than 2,000 mg per day). (Of course, you should always check with your doctor before starting any weight-loss program.)

Cutting back on sodium not only helps people who have high blood pressure, but those at risk for developing the disease, according to the American Heart Association. This means African-Americans, the elderly, people with Type II diabetes, and those with a family history of high blood pressure are among the groups that can benefit most by limiting salt in their diets.

Making the right choices within your food plan -- such as avoiding processed foods and using little table salt -- is the key to making it work for you. Also, keep in mind that sodium occurs naturally in some foods, such as meats, breads and dairy products.

And, to keep your foods flavorful without the salt, you'll need to get creative with the use of herbs, spices, vinegars, fruits and vegetables.

Become a Label Reader

The first step in controlling the sodium in your diet is to carefully read the nutrition information labels on foods you buy.

Sometimes, salt is hiding behind other names. Sodium may show up on labels as monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodiumphosphate, sodium chloride, and any term including the word "sodium." Unprocessed foods, like fresh produce, have very little sodium.

Watch out for processed foods, in which sodium is often used as a preservative or flavor enhancer. Most savory (that is, non-sweet) canned foods come bathed in a salty liquid. And restaurant Chinese food can be very high in sodium unless you request it without MSG.

Taste It First

Limit the use of the salt shaker, both at the table and in cooking. Get into the habit of tasting your food before salting it.

Remember, though, that the salt shaker is usually responsible for only about 15% of the sodium in your diet. Most comes from processed and canned foods, so pass up these foods in favor of fresh ones -- usually those located around the perimeter of the grocery store.

Eat Lots of Fruits and Vegetables

Diets rich in fruits and vegetables can help lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease, research has found. The healthy antioxidants, phytochemicals, and vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables work to help control blood pressure. It's probably the abundance of potassium and the decreased sodium that comes with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables that makes the difference.

Not only will fruits and vegetables help your blood pressure, but, according to The American Cancer Society, five servings of them a day can help prevent cancer. Clearly, fruits and vegetables are good for you in more ways than your mother ever dreamed of!

The Eating Plan

So if your blood pressure is a concern, the bottom line is to select from a wide variety of foods within your eating plan, limit alcohol, and get five servings a day of fruits and vegetables -- and, of course, keep salt to a minimum.

Here are more tips for keeping your salt intake down while following your eating plan:

  • When making choices within food groups, select fresh or frozen instead of canned foods whenever possible.
  • Use low-sodium versions of canned foods and other packaged foods such as sauce mixes.
  • Avoid canned, smoked and processed meats, like cold cuts, hot dogs and sausages.
  • Use herbs, spices, vinegars, fruits, and vegetables to add extra flavor to your food.
  • Avoid condiments high in sodium, like soy sauce, pickles and olives.
  • Select frozen entrees with less than 800 milligrams of sodium.
  • Avoid salty snacks like potato chips, nuts, and crackers.
  • Check the labels on processed cheeses, and choose lower-sodium varieties.

Originally published April 24, 2003
Medically updated May 2, 2005.

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