Last week we discussed what cardiovascular disease (CVD) is, different types of CVD and modifiable risk factors for developing CVD. You can catch up on our last blog, titled ‘Cardiovascular Disease: Definition, Types and Risk Factors’. This week we will be exploring how to manage blood pressure, a modifiable risk factor for CVD, using nutrition.
What is High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure is a factor that can increase your risk of getting CVD, it is also referred to as hypertension. If your blood pressure is too high, it causes strain on your blood vessels and heart, and can cause damage to blood vessels. This happens as your arteries lose their stretchiness and become narrow or stiff if you have hypertension, causing fatty substances to clog them up easier. If the arteries leading to your brain become clogged this could lead to a stroke, or a heart attack if the arteries are leading to the heart. Approximately 50% of heart attacks and strokes are associated with high blood pressure .
The NHS defines high blood pressure as 140/90mmHg or higher, or 150/90mmHg or higher if you are over 80. The larger number is your systolic pressure which is the force of the blood being pumped around the body by the heart. The smaller number is your diastolic pressure which is the resistance to blood flow in the blood vessels. An ideal blood pressure is said to be between 90/60mmHg to 120/80mmHg. Around a third of UK adults have hypertension, but many go undiagnosed. You can get your blood pressure checked at your GP surgery, at some pharmacies, as part of your NHS Health Check and in some workplaces .
Risk Factors for Hypertension
Risk factors that can increase your chance of developing high blood pressure include:
- Being overweight
- Eating too much salt and not enough fruit and vegetables
- Being inactive
- Drinking too much alcohol or caffeine-based drinks
- Disturbed or lack of sleep
- Have family members with high blood pressure
- Being of black African or Caribbean descent
- Living in a deprived area
Managing High Blood Pressure
Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, increasing activity, and cutting down alcohol and caffeine intake, can all decrease the risk of developing high blood pressure or lower blood pressure if it’s already high. You can also implement changes to your diet to help manage or prevent hypertension.
The NHS recommends a healthy and balanced diet to lower high blood pressure. You should aim to eat a diet low in saturated fats, including plenty of fibre and a range of fruit and vegetables. You should try to eat less than 6g of salt a day, which is the equivalent to about a teaspoon .
Reducing Salt Intake
If you think you eat too much salt, there are a number of ways in which you can reduce your intake.
When you go shopping you can reduce your salt intake by implementing changes like:
- Check the nutrition labels on your everyday food items and go for options lower in salt
- Try to eat cured meats and fish less often as they are high in salt
- If you eat tinned vegetables and beans, go for brands that don’t contain added salt
- Choose fruit, vegetables and nuts as snacks rather than crisps as they often contain lots of salt
- Try to choose low salt alternatives to sauces such as mayonnaise, ketchup, soy sauce and mustard as they can contribute to a high salt intake
You can also make changes when cooking at home to reduce the amount of salt that you consume. For example, make your own stock and gravy rather than using cubes or granules as this gives you more control over the amount of salt that is added. Additionally, try to use black pepper as a seasoning instead of salt, or roast vegetables like tomatoes and parsnips to bring out more of their flavour. You should also ensure that you taste your food before adding salt as many people add salt out of habit.
It may be more difficult to control your salt intake when eating out but there are still a number of things you can do to try to eat less salt:
- If you are eating pizza, try swapping cured meat toppings like pepperoni or bacon for vegetables and chicken
- For pasta dishes, go for a tomato-based sauce with vegetables rather than cheesy pasta
- If you are eating a Chinese or Indian meal, avoid pilau or egg fried rice and go for plain rice as this contains less salt
- Go for chicken, egg and vegetable filled sandwiches over ham or cheddar cheese and switch to low salt condiments 
Top Tips for Managing High Blood Pressure with Diet
- Taste your food before adding salt, to avoid adding out of habit
- Go for low salt alternatives when buying everyday items
- Make your own stock, gravy and pasta sauces so you can control the amount of salt that you add to them
- Opt for healthier snacks, like vegetables, fruit and nuts, over crisps
- Go easy on condiments/sauces or switch to alternatives which contain less salt
If you are enjoying the series so far, and would like to find out more about ways to reduce your risk of developing CVD, stay tuned for next week’s blog on managing raised cholesterol with diet.
Caroline Hill is a specialist menopause dietitian supporting women making dietary change. Caroline uses her extensive knowledge, skills and expertise of food and nutrition to help women manage their symptoms and weight during menopause. Caroline believes in providing sustainable, individualised, evidence-based advice to women making dietary change.