Eating right to control mild hypertension

I have always advised you to do everything possible to keep your blood pressure under control. That’s because hypertension is the strongest risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and stroke. And it’s just too big of a problem to tackle on your own. Plus, about half of people who have high blood pressure don’t even know it. Or they aren’t being treated for it.

And even when you do know your numbers, the treatment options just got more complicated. As I recently told you, some experts now question whether drug therapy is really appropriate for someone with “mild” elevation in blood pressure between 120/80 and 140/90.

If you fall into this category, you may consider trying yoga or another mind-body therapy. These can help you modestly lower “mild” high blood pressure. And help you avoid taking drugs.

So, what else can you do to help control mild high blood pressure?

The first thing most people now think of is to cut out salt. In fact, The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute created the DASH dietary plan to help people cut out salt. (DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.) And it suggests you limit daily salt intake to no more than 2,300 mg. Or, ideally, no more than 1,500 mg.

But, as you know, the “great salt scam” is not based on real science when it comes to blood pressure control. Fortunately, DASH also emphasizes eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. It also tells us to eat less meat, fish, poultry, and sugars. So, DASH isn’t just about cutting salt.

In fact, experts at the Boston Medical Center believe the DASH plan works because it combines lean protein with a high intake of fruits and vegetables. Yes, DASH encourages you to restrict salt. But it also encourages you add in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. And together, these elements help to control your blood pressure as well as chronic diseases.

Plus, it turns out that the DASH plan is the only diet that actually has scientific data to support it. And it makes sense that DASH works. Especially when you consider that many experts have long questioned the role of salt as the lone cause of high blood pressure. And it also helps explain why simply restricting salt doesn’t “cure” hypertension.

So how about other diets? Can they help lower your blood pressure?

As a matter of fact, there are some popular diets that can help lower blood pressure. Unfortunately, they’re not all created equal when it comes to providing you with optimal nutrition. But let’s start with one that does–the Mediterranean Diet.

Experts have long recognized the Mediterranean Diet for reducing heart disease and many cancers.

Traditionally, the Mediterranean diet includes healthy amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish, and some red meat. They also use relatively large amounts of olive oil.

It is not a “low-fat” diet, per se, as it contains plenty of monosaturated fat from the olive oil. But this is a healthy fat, rather than an unhealthy fat. And, of course, the diet includes moderate wine consumption.

There is not a lot of science that the Mediterranean diet directly reduces blood pressure. But we do know that men and women who follow the diet reduce their risk of heart and cardio-vascular diseases, which are caused by high blood pressure. And that is the bigger issue at stake.

The Ornish Diet is another popular regimen that has been shown to prevent and even reverse heart disease. It is an extremely low-fat, vegetarian diet. Less than 10 percent of the calories come from fat. Instead, it’s heavy on the carbs, fiber and vegetables.

Essentially, the Ornish Diet is a “high-carb” diet.

And that concerns me. In terms of basic human biology, I question the value of restricting natural fats to extremely low levels. And keeping carbohydrate levels high can cause metabolic problems.

Also, as readers of my newsletter know, fiber is a complex issue. It is not simply a question of eating a “high” fiber diet. You have to be careful about the types of fiber you eat. For example, eating a cereal bar with added fiber doesn’t improve your metabolism and disease risks like eating fruit will.

Furthermore, humans simply cannot obtain healthy levels of all nutrients from vegetarian diets alone. And any diet that eliminates entire food groups found in nature reduces the universally healthy effects of dietary diversity. This also makes the diet difficult to follow.

So how does the Ornish program get such good results, when it comes to heart disease?

I have a theory that is supported by lots of other research…

One key feature of the Ornish program is that participants shop together. Prepare food together. Eat together. And participate in other group activities. I always believed this social support helped Ornish followers to lower their stress and improve their mental health. According to much research, those effects also help participants lower their blood pressure.

Here’s another major problem with the Ornish plan…when people try this at home, on their own, it doesn’t work well. I gleaned this from my own observations and from my late colleague, Lee Lipsenthal, who worked with Dr. Ornish for many years.

The one positive thing about the Ornish program is that when followed properly, it does reverse heart disease. Yet for decades, mainstream doctors claimed heart disease could never be reversed. Only treated and “managed.” The Ornish program proves otherwise.

In my view, it is not the Ornish diet alone that does it. But it may well be the social support and the blood pressure reduction that comes with it.

Another popular diet out there is the South Beach Diet.

This diet is unnecessarily complicated. And based on some “gimmicks” and “myths” that in my view do not fit well with human biology. Plus, it is difficult to follow. Especially long-term. It may have some heart health benefits, but like the Ornish diet, the quality of the nutrition is questionable.

In the end, I recommend you make eating more fruits and vegetables your top priority if you have mild hypertension. Start there. It makes sense for many reasons.

Next, limit consumption of processed foods. Basically, when you go food shopping, stay mainly on the outside aisles of the grocery store.

However, keep in mind that if your hypertension is beyond “mild,” even a “heart-healthy” diet is probably not enough. The stress that most people face in modern life may simply be too difficult to overcome with natural approaches alone. That’s why I always recommend working closely with your doctor to make a personalized plan. One that may include the use of safe, proven blood pressure medications.

But no matter what your blood pressure is, you have many healthy options for getting it–and keeping it–right where it needs to be.