Adopting Healthier Habits

Adopting a healthy lifestyle — which means cutting back on salt, losing excess weight, and maintaining a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — is the cornerstone for preventing and treating hypertension. If you don’t have diabetes or damage to the heart, brain, kidneys, or eyes, lifestyle changes alone may be enough to bring a high blood pressure reading into the normal range.

The May 2003 JNC guidelines recommend lifestyle modifications as the best approach for bringing prehypertensive blood pressures (120/80–139/89 mm Hg) into a healthy range. In addition, people with stage 1 hypertension (140/90–159/99 mm Hg) who don’t have any other health conditions can often try making lifestyle changes before resorting to medications.

Even if you need to use antihypertensive drugs to control your blood pressure, you should still adopt healthy habits. The lifestyle changes described in this section of the report can substantially improve your blood pressure. For example, diet and exercise are an essential part of treatment because they help medications control your blood pressure, making it possible for you to get good results with a lower dosage.

Tips for keeping your high blood pressure in check

Take your blood pressure medication as prescribed. If you experience side effects, talk to your doctor.

Try to maintain a healthy weight.

Increase your physical activity. Do at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, such as walking, on most days. You can split the session into three 10-minute segments during the day.

Eat foods low in salt and sodium.

Read nutrition labels to determine how much sodium is in packaged foods.

Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and choose low-fat dairy foods.

Include foods rich in potassium and calcium in your diet.

If you consume alcohol, do so moderately.

If you smoke, quit.

Reduce your stress.

Tell your family and friends you have high blood pressure, especially the person who prepares the meals.

Eat well

Hypertension, stroke, and heart disease are common in the United States and most other western industrialized nations. Epidemiologists attribute much of their prevalence to diet. After decades of research, scientists have concluded that the typical American diet is a recipe for hypertension and cardiovascular disease: too much salt, too much saturated fat, too many calories, and not enough fruits and vegetables. But the good news is that you can take an active role in preventing and controlling high blood pressure by watching what you eat.

The DASH diet

Results of the first Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997, offered some of the most encouraging news that diet can help control blood pressure. In fact, the results were so promising that the JNC guidelines recommend all Americans — not just those with hypertension — follow the DASH diet. Low in fat and rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products, this eating plan significantly and quickly lowered blood pressure in people with hypertension enrolled in a multicenter study.

Consume less salt

While it’s generally accepted that salt plays a significant role in blood pressure, the question of whether everyone should reduce their salt intake is the source of a longstanding, vigorous debate.

Nine tips to reduce the salt in your diet

Buy vegetables that are fresh, frozen, or canned “with no salt added.”

Use fresh poultry, fish, and lean meat, rather than canned or processed types.

Use herbs, spices, and salt-free seasoning blends in cooking and at the table.

Cook rice, pasta, and hot cereals without salt. Cut back on instant or flavored rice, pasta, and cereal mixes.

Choose convenience foods that are lower in sodium. Cut back on frozen dinners, packaged mixes, canned soups or broths, and salad dressings.

Rinse canned foods, such as tuna, to remove some sodium.

When available, buy low-sodium, reduced-sodium, or no-salt-added versions of foods.

Choose breakfast cereals that are lower in sodium.

Snack on fruits and vegetables instead of chips.

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