Nutrition Column – Mission Possible: Preventing and Controlling High Blood Pressure

May is National High Blood Pressure Month, and a good time to take action to find out what your blood pressure numbers are, what they mean, and what you need to do to prevent or control this all too common condition. More than 65 million American adults, about one in three, have high blood pressure, defined has having a blood pressure reading of 140/90 mmHg.

While anyone can develop high blood pressure, factors that increase one’s risk include being overweight or obese, being physically inactive, consuming a diet that’s high in salt or sodium and low in fruits and vegetables, excessive alcohol consumption, and diabetes. Aging also is considered a risk factor; in fact, if you’re over age 55, you have a 90 percent chance of developing high blood pressure at some point in your life.

Why care about your blood pressure? High blood pressure is a factor in two-thirds of the heart attacks in the United States and three-fourths of the strokes. If that’s not reason enough, high blood pressure is the second leading cause of chronic kidney failure and affects circulation – creating a higher risk for mental deterioration and Alzheimer’s.

The good news is that high blood pressure can be treated and often delayed or prevented through medication and lifestyle changes. The best solution is to prevent high blood pressure before it occurs.

Now, during High Blood Pressure month, is a good time to resolve to make those changes in your eating habits and lifestyle that will help lower your risk of becoming a heart patient statistic. These include:

– Achieve and maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, even small amounts of weight loss can make a big difference in helping reduce and prevent high blood pressure.  

– Be more physically active. Physical activity helps both with losing weight and in lowering other risk factors associated with heart disease, such as blood cholesterol levels. Again, you don’t have to become a marathon runner to see an effect. Even light activities, if done daily, can help lower your risk of heart disease.

– If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation. Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and lead to chronic high blood pressure. While there’s evidence that some alcohol, especially red wine, may be good for heart health, more is not. For overall health, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended that men limit their alcohol intake to no more than two drinks a day, and women to no more than one drink a day.

– Do the DASH, diet that is. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Clinical studies have shown the DASH diet to be quite helpful in reducing blood pressure. In fact, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend the DASH Eating Plan as one example of a balanced eating plan consistent with the new guidelines. The DASH diet looks very similar to a low-fat version of the Food Guide Pyramid in which low fat or fat free dairy products and lean meats are recommended. The main difference is that recommended servings of fruits and vegetables are increased to eight to 10 servings daily over the five to eight listed in the Food Guide Pyramid. In addition, four to five servings of nuts, seeds and dry beans are recommended weekly as rich sources of magnesium, potassium and fiber. The high levels of calcium, magnesium and potassium in the DASH diet are thought to be at least partially responsible for the results seen with the DASH diet.

Single copies of the DASH diet are available free from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute’s Information Center, PO Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 200824-0105. Ask for fact sheet 03-4082 or visit the DASH Web site at

– 30 –

by Pat Kendall, R.D., Ph.D., Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension