DICKINSON, ND — High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a serious health problem for millions of Americans. It has been linked to dementia, pregnancy complications and is the leading cause of stroke – a growing concern for young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a third of American adults with hypertension are unaware because they are often asymptomatic.
Monitoring sodium intake is key to maintaining healthy blood pressure, said Rachel Iverson, a registered dietitian and sports dietitian with the board of directors of Sanford Health in Bismarck. Iverson said heavily processed foods such as the Hamburger Helper, canned macaroni and cheese, canned soups and frozen dinners often contain unhealthy levels of sodium; the reason being that salt is used as a preservative to extend shelf life. Yet there are sodium-rich products whose jaw-dropping saltiness tends to stay under the consumer’s radar.
“You think of things that are processed with salt, like cottage cheese. They use sodium to stop the curdling process – creating curd so it has that nice texture. So cottage cheese has about 500 milligrams of sodium per cup,” she said.
When prepared properly, home-prepared foods are much healthier than processed foods.
“In general, you’ll eat less sodium if you’re cooking at home if you stop adding salt to your foods, which I know is hard, especially if you like a good steak,” Iverson said.
When using canned foods such as green beans, she recommended rinsing them because a high amount of sodium is used as a preservative in the canning process. She also mentioned the Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension (DASH) plan.
“It will be grain products like whole grains, 100% whole wheat bread, popcorn, quinoa and brown rice. These will all be whole grains. Oatmeal is excellent. This diet is also quite high in healthy fats, so things like nuts,” she said. “I recommend up to nine servings of produce per day because, again, fruits and vegetables usually don’t contain a ton of sodium.”
The average person should consume between 2,100 and 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. It can be difficult to track, so she suggested breaking it down into more easily measurable components.
“Most Americans consume much more than that and average about 4,000 milligrams a day,” Iverson said. “I have a rule for patients who are working to reduce sodium, take about 500 milligrams of sodium per meal and 250 milligrams per snack. That way, if you have three meals and one or two snacks a day, you should be well below these limits.
With that in mind, she said you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself to occasionally cross those limits.
“If you exceed these limits, it does not mean that the whole day is blown and you should just order cinema buttered popcorn. When you bring it down to those 500s and 250s, it becomes a much more lasting change,” she said.
About 50% of the cause of high blood pressure is genetic while the other half is attributable to a person’s lifestyle, she said, adding that exercise is important but has limited potential to mitigate or reduce the risk of hypertension.
“Exercise makes you sweat. Some of the different electrolytes involved, or maybe things like magnesium like calcium, potassium, and sodium. All of these play a role, but sodium tends to have the biggest impact on blood pressure in particular. So that’s really what we focus on,” she said. “Genetically, your body might just retain more solutes, your kidneys might work differently, you might have more thirst signals, or you might just sweat more frequently. So sweating usually lowers high blood pressure a bit, but that’s not really a solution because we don’t usually sweat enough solutes to have a significant impact unless you’re training for a marathon in hot weather.
Gabrielle Hartze is a registered dietitian with CHI St. Alexius Health in Dickinson. Hartze said patients should consult with their doctor about appropriate levels of protein intake based on age and activity level, among other factors.
“Those who consume more protein than their body actually needs end up storing it as fat, which simply leads to weight gain. Weight gain then leads to this likelihood of increased blood pressure “, she said.
She also agreed with Iverson that grains are essential and stressed the importance of whole grains such as barley or oatmeal over refined ones such as white flour products.
“Refined grains are processed grains. So they remove the bran and the germ, which means there’s less iron, B vitamins and fiber,” Hartze said.
For more information on a nutritionally healthy lifestyle, see the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommendations at myplate.gov.