Food & Fitness After 50: Want to Naturally Lower Your Blood Pressure? Here’s How.

Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against the walls of the arteries. Sounds simple enough but when that pressure gets high it can put you at risk for heart disease and stroke. Nearly half of adults in the U.S. (that is about 108 million) have high blood pressure (also called hypertension) yet only 24% or about 1 in 4 have it under control.

High blood pressure doesn’t make you feel bad so you might not know that you have it until it is too late. What can you do to control it? The good news is that medications can control it, but did you know that dietary changes can be just as effective as some drugs? And, the bonus is that a healthful diet also provides other disease-management benefits such as lowering cholesterol and blood sugar. I sat down with colleague and friend, Rosanne Rust, a registered dietitian and author, to talk about her latest cookbook, DASH Diet for Two.

Question: Give us the big picture of the DASH diet…. what is it and how do we know it works to lower blood pressure?

DASH is an acronym for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (high blood pressure). It’s based on a 1997 landmark clinical trial (it was a randomized, controlled study, often called the “gold standard” for research) and has been repeated with other studies. The original study compared 3 groups, each given a dietary plan to follow over an 8-week period. Those on the DASH diet saw a drop in blood pressure in just 2 weeks, which translates to a 15% drop in heart attack risk and as much as a 27% reduction in stroke risk. The study included 459 people, half women, half men, and all had high blood pressure. Since high blood pressure is prevalent in the African American community, the researchers made sure to include them; 60% of study participants were Black.

DASH is a meal plan that emphasizes plant foods (especially fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), limits salt, sugars and saturated fat, and includes healthy plant fats and oils. It focuses on balanced meals with small portions of lean meats and fish twice a week to round out the plate. Low-fat dairy foods are also an important part of the DASH plan.

(For a good resource on the DASH diet, click here or or pre-order Rosanne’s book, DASH diet for Dummies, 2nd edition, available next month.)

Question: When people hear about diet and high blood pressure, they usually think about a low sodium diet, a tasteless low sodium diet at that. What other nutrients are important in regulating blood pressure?

The DASH diet is rich in minerals that help to manage blood pressure: potassium, calcium, magnesium. The DASH trials showed that sodium is not the main player in lowering blood pressure.  Including fruits, veggies and dairy foods (all rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium) helps lower blood pressure even on a diet that includes 3000 milligrams of sodium a day.

Fruits, veggies, and whole grains are also rich in antioxidants. While antioxidants don’t directly impact blood pressure, they are important to help keep cells healthy.

Question: Sodium is still important in blood pressure control, so I want to talk a bit about choosing foods in the grocery store and when dining out. Any tips?

I love restaurants and dining out. But you’ll end up consuming much more sodium when eating out than when you cook at home. Right now, we are all eating out less and cooking more at home but when you begin to eat out again try to balance the “eating out” days with days of eating less sodium while cooking at home.

Sodium doesn’t just come from the saltshaker. Most of the sodium in our meals comes from packaged foods that contain sodium in a variety of forms, including as a preservative. Reading labels is important because even within a category, there can be huge differences in the sodium content. Many brands have reformulated and call out reduced sodium on the label so that is a good place to start when trying to lower sodium.

Other tips to reduce sodium include:

  • Rinsing canned veggies. Did you know that by draining and rinsing canned beans (a nutrition superstar) you can cut sodium by 40%?
  • Cut salt in your cooking and use herbs and spices for flavor.
  • Compare bread and grains products; bread, while not tasting salty, can contribute to sodium intake, so choose breads with less sodium.
Rosanne Rust

Question: I can hear people saying, “I’m on blood pressure meds so I don’t have to worry about what I eat.” What would you say to that?

That is my pet peeve! Just because medication is lowering your blood pressure doesn’t mean you don’t have high blood pressure. You still have the diagnosis of high blood pressure and you will be healthier by eating better. For those who have been told they have “pre-hypertension,” the DASH diet can help lower blood pressure so you will never need medication. And, if you are currently taking a blood pressure medicine, following a healthy eating plan, like the DASH diet can often allow you to reduce the dosage thereby saving money and reducing side effects from the drug.

Question: I am one of seven kids and when we were all out of the house my mother complained she didn’t’ know how to cook without a crowd around her. Recipes for two sounds genius! Why did you write this cookbook and why are the recipes for two?

I have a strong family history of heart disease on both sides of my family, so I’ve been interested in studying prevention since the 1990s. There is a genetic component to high blood pressure, so despite my best efforts, I ended up being diagnosed with hypertension at age 52. I already ate well and have always included physical activity in my weekly routine, so I asked to be placed on the lowest possible dose of medication, and amped up my efforts to follow a DASH eating plan. It worked.

Having written two other DASH books, and now having HTN, I’m organically married to this lifestyle!

Buffalo Chicken Mac N Cheese

As for the reason for recipes for “two,” I’m now an empty nester as my three sons are out of the house so recipes for two sounded like a perfect fit for me. So far, the reception has been great. I intentionally included traditional recipes that I “made-over,” along with comfort foods and dishes that people might think would be off limits for a blood pressure lowering, heart healthy diet. The Buffalo Chicken Mac N Cheese is a favorite! (Click here for the recipe.)

Question: How did your family react to the recipes…I’m assuming your sons don’t have high blood pressure so did they turn their noses up at the idea of eating recipes developed for those with high blood pressure?

I was amazed when my 22-year old said, “It’s pretty good,” as he proceeded to eat a large portion of the Vegged Up Beef Enchiladas. Other recipes are dishes that we’ve eaten for years, so they’re simply used to eating this way. The men in my household do like meat though, so if it was up to them, they’d have big portions of meat more often. But I keep working on them and I have my husband convinced that a meatless meal occasionally is a good thing. He loves the 50-50 burgers: 50% lean ground beef and 50% finely chopped mushrooms make for a juicy burger with less fat, less sodium, and an extra serving of veggies.

I hope you enjoyed hearing about how to lower blood pressure with your food choices. Please share this post with anyone you know who has high blood pressure and is curious about lowering it and being healthier at the same time.

Dr. Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Along with Dr. Bob Murray, she is the author of Food & Fitness After 50.

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved

Food & Fitness After 50: The Urgency of Awareness: How Understanding Yourself Can Help You Understand Others

This isn’t my usual post; it deals with neither food nor fitness, but it might just help with mental fitness.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a training session at work or in your community designed to make you an effective team member? You know the kind of meeting…. writing on big sheets of paper stuck to the conference room wall, wordsmithing mission and vision statements, or trust exercises with colleagues. Let’s face it. For most of us the sessions were a snooze fest.

Well, not so with an amazing presenter I heard earlier this year. Jodi Pfarr is not your typical workshop leader. For the past 20 years she has been helping individuals, organizations, and communities understand their place in the societal system and how it impacts every aspect of their lives. Her humor and authenticity shine through. I encourage you to watch her website videos to experience her style. Jodi’s new book, The Urgency of Awareness, can help us be more effective in all spheres of our lives by getting to understand ourselves and our place in the societal system. I asked Jodi some questions about how we can apply this to our lives and why it is so urgent.

Question: When I attended your workshop, you had the group start by looking at 18 pairs of triangles…each pair showed one triangle pointing up and one pointing down. We were to circle the triangle in the pair that represented us. The upward pointing triangles represents what society normalizes. Can you explain what normalization means?

Our societal system is made up of us as individuals, but also by organizations, communities, and policies. And, our societal system normalizes one thing or one group over another. When something is normalized, let’s use the example of being right-handed as the normalized group, the people in that group get benefits that they don’t even realize they get. But, just ask a left-handed person and they can tell you the world is made for right-handers. Even the language we use reflects the normalized group. “Right” is associated with good things, “right hand man” for example, vs “left” as in “having two left feet.”

So, understanding if you are in the normalized group can help you become more aware of how society is geared toward that group and not another group. You get benefits from being in the normalized group even if you don’t recognize it. When you recognize that fact you can be more effective at listening to people and understanding them.

Question: Polices change over time so doesn’t that help equalize things for the group that is not normalized?

Polices do change to help move toward equality, but it can take a very long time and the effects of normalization live on. I like to use the example of South Africa. During apartheid, the white minority was normalized over the majority black population. After apartheid was overthrown, South Africa’s policies changed but inequality in wages, land ownership, and standard of living for blacks remain. Whites, being the normalized group, continue to benefit even after policies change.

Question: We all make assumptions about people, whether it is judging the food choices people make or the health care decisions they make. Why is that unproductive?

When we are not aware of being in a normalized group we act out of our own experiences. We know something based on our experiences and we put our experiences on other people. As you might image, being middle class or upper middle class is normalized and the underclass, the working poor, or those living in poverty are not normalized.

As a person who grew up in poverty, I saw firsthand that food takes on a different meaning from those who grew up middle or upper middle class.  Folks who grow up in poverty talk about food in terms of quantitiy….do I have enough to eat? If you are in the middle class and you had enough to eat the question becomes does it taste good? And, if you are wealthy, food is judged on appearance….is it pretty? Those who didn’t grow up in poverty question the food choices that are made by those who grow up in poverty…. why aren’t “those people” eating organic foods or fresh fruits and vegetables? We have a hard time understanding where others are coming from based on our experiences being in the normalized group. Seeing where we are coming from instead of assuming where others are coming from is more effective than the truth as we see it.

Question: Do you think people need more empathy?

Empathy is an overused word, in my opinion. Saying you have “empathy” can be just one more to do item on a checklist.  I think understanding is a more useful way to look it. When you understand you can move to ownership to have a better understanding of yourself. It allows reflection and can help you understand that there are different experiences and yours or mine isn’t the “best” experience, it is a different experience. When people start becoming aware, they can be more effective listeners, and everyone wants to be heard. It can be uncomfortable to realize you are part of a normalized group that has received benefits…some people feel guilty and some want to “fix” it. You don’t have to feel bad, just be aware and have understanding as a first step.

Question: Those between the ages of 18 and 65 are in the normalized group. I am over the age of 65 so I am not in the normalized group. How do you think older adults fit into the current societal system?

We need older people and their wisdom to lead us, now more than ever. Older folks have more experiences and their perceptions should be shared with younger people. We need older folks to lead and teach lessons to younger kids.  As I said earlier, everyone wants to be heard and feel listened to so older folks can start being more effective in their communication with younger people by not judging the nose rings and tattoos! Remember, one experience is just different, not better or worse than yours.

Question: In a word, what do you think we need right now from each other?

Grace, we need grace.

I found many definitions of the word “grace,” but I think the one that comes closest to what Jodi meant is “quality or state of being considerate and thoughtful, or courteous goodwill.” The world could all use more grace right now.

After hearing Jodi and reading her book it struck me that the difference between Jodi’s approach and all the other training is an internal focus versus external focus. By focusing on discovering awareness within ourselves we can be more effective with others. In Jodi’s words, “We have not learned to connect the understanding of how our unique individual experiences cause us to see and navigate the world differently.” Her book and teachings can help us connect with each other and our communities more effectively.

Dr. Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Along with Dr. Bob Murray, she is the author of Food & Fitness After 50.

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved