Adopting Healthier Habits

Keep an eye on fat

A diet low in saturated fat can reduce cholesterol levels, but its effect on blood pressure is not well established. In the early 1970s, researchers observed that vegetarians tended to have lower blood pressures than people who ate meat. Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in fat, particularly saturated fat, but there are many other differences. Vegetarians generally consume more fiber and minerals and less protein than meat-eaters. Furthermore, vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy products are rich sources of potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Diets high in these minerals are associated with low blood pressure. The DASH diet, for instance, is a low-fat, high-mineral eating plan.

Boost your potassium intake

Consuming too little potassium can raise your blood pressure and your risk of stroke. Increasing dietary potassium may allow some people to reduce the dose of their blood pressure medication. Before increasing your intake of potassium, check with your doctor. Some people — for example, those with kidney disease — may need to avoid both potassium and salt.

Get enough calcium

Some research suggests a low calcium intake may contribute to high blood pressure, but calcium’s exact role in hypertension is unknown. One theory holds that a lack of calcium in the diet predisposes your body to retain sodium, which raises blood pressure. For this reason, it may be especially important that salt-sensitive people with hypertension get enough calcium.

While there’s evidence that consuming plenty of calcium-rich foods and beverages may help prevent hypertension, efforts to control blood pressure with calcium supplements have had mixed results.

Other nutritional factors

In addition to the factors described above, these elements of your diet may affect your blood pressure as well.

Magnesium. Some evidence links a low amount of dietary magnesium with hypertension, but experts aren’t sure whether this mineral alone affects blood pressure or if the effect comes from other nutrients, such as calcium and potassium, often found in foods containing magnesium.

Fiber. Dietary fiber helps reduce cholesterol and, according to some studies, may help lower blood pressure.

Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish like mackerel and salmon, canola oil, and some nuts and grains such as flaxseed. Large amounts of these fatty acids may help reduce high blood pressure, but their role in preventing hypertension is unclear. What is apparent is their effect on heart disease. Several studies have linked modest levels of fish consumption with a reduced risk of heart attack and sudden death.

Caffeine. Generally, most experts believe that caffeine may raise blood pressure in people who are unaccustomed to consuming it, but not in regular users. As a result, they’ve recommended limiting your intake of coffee, tea, soft drinks, and chocolate only if you are caffeine sensitive.

Quit smoking

When it comes to heart disease and blood pressure, smoking packs a devastating wallop. Nicotine raises your blood pressure, lowers “good” HDL cholesterol, reduces your body’s supply of oxygen, and makes blood clots more likely.

It can be difficult to quit smoking, despite all the health reasons to do so, because this habit is psychologically and physically addictive. Smoking cessation programs primarily address the psychological facets of addiction by helping participants change ingrained behaviors. Nicotine replacement systems — such as patches, chewing gum, and nasal sprays — target physical craving by delivering the addictive substance in another form, allowing the user to taper off gradually, minimizing withdrawal symptoms. According to the American Lung Association, research has found that using a nicotine replacement product and participating in a smoking cessation program doubles your chances of successfully quitting.

Quitting isn’t easy, but it offers enormous benefits. Within hours of stopping smoking, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, although it may take up to a month for them to return to normal. Within a year of quitting, your heart disease risk is cut in half. Within 15 years of giving up smoking, your risk of heart disease is close to that of nonsmokers.

Cut back on alcohol

Heavy drinking increases blood pressure and interferes with blood pressure medication. Drinking has dietary drawbacks, too. For people battling their weight, alcohol adds “empty” calories with no nutritional value. A bottle of beer contains 146 calories (100 calories if it’s light beer) and a glass of wine has 123 calories. Some mixed drinks add fat and cholesterol, too. Eggnog with brandy, for example, serves up 288 calories with 6 grams of saturated fat, 11 grams of total fat, and 84 mg of cholesterol.

On the other hand, modest alcohol consumption has different effects. Numerous studies have shown that people who drink in moderation are at significantly lower risk for coronary artery disease than those who don’t drink. Moderate alcohol use for men is defined as no more than one ounce of alcohol (two drinks) a day. However, women absorb more alcohol than men and should limit their daily intake to half an ounce (one drink). Small or underweight people are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol than heavier people and should consume no more than half an ounce daily (see “How much alcohol is in your drink?”).

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