Diet and Nutrition

How to Manage Blood Pressure

April 26, 2018   /
Shawna Gornick-Ilagan, MS, RD, CWPC

Do not wait until it is too late

High blood pressure has no symptoms, but it can lead to serious health problems. Over time, high blood pressure can damage the heart, blood vessels, eyes, and other organs, and it increases your risk for having a heart attack or stroke. 

Did you know that one in three Americans has high blood pressure? And another 1 in 3 has prehypertension-blood pressure levels that are higher than normal but not yet in the “high” range. 

What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the force in the arteries when the heart beats (systolic pressure) and when the heart is at rest (diastolic pressure). It is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). High blood pressure (or hypertension) is defined in an adult as a blood pressure greater than or equal to 140 mm Hg systolic pressure, or greater than or equal to 90 mm Hg diastolic pressure.

Do I have high blood pressure?

Blood Pressure (systolic/diastolic) Classification
< 120/< 80 Normal
120-139/80 - 90 Prehypertension
140 - 159/90 - 99 Stage 1 hypertension
> 160/> 100 Stage 2 hypertension
> 180/> 110 Severe hypertension

< = less than, > = greater than

If you have one high blood pressure test, your doctor will repeat the test to confirm a diagnosis of high blood pressure (hypertension). If you blood pressure is 140/90 or higher over time, you doctor will likely diagnose you with high blood pressure. 

Am I at risk? 
You may be at extra risk for high blood pressure if you: 

  • Are overweight
  • Have a family history of high blood pressure
  • Eat foods high in sodium and low in potassium
  • Do not exercise regularly
  • Smoke
  • Drink a lot of alcohol (more than two drinks per day for men or more than one drink per day for women)
  • Have diabetes

Family history

”We can’t change the cards we’re dealt, just how we play the hand.” — Randy Pausch

However, you can take steps to manage blood pressure and protect your heart, no matter what your family history is!

What can you do?

Step 1: Practice weight management
If you are overweight, just losing 5 - 10% of your weight can significantly reduce your blood pressure. To lose weight, control the calories you consume and increase your physical activity. Cutting back just 500 calories per day and increasing exercise is usually enough to promote weight loss. What does 500 calories look like? One 20-fluid-ounce (fl oz) bottle of regular cola plus one regular-sized candy bar equals approximately 500 calories. 

Step 2: Do not smoke
What are the benefits over time when smokers quit?

Time Smoke Free Benefit
20 minutes after quitting Your heart rate and blood pressure drop.
12 hours after quitting The carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal.
2 weeks to 3 months after quitting Your circulation improves, and your lung function increases.
1 - 9 months after quitting Coughing and shortness of breath decrease; cilia (tiny hair-like structures that move mucous out of the lungs) regain normal function in the lungs, increasing the ability to handle mucous, clean the lungs, and reduce the risk of infection.
1 year after quitting The excess risk of coronary heart disease is half that of someone who smokes.
5 years after quitting Your stroke risk is reduced to that of a nonsmoker 5 - 15 years after quitting
10 years after quitting  The lung cancer death rate is about half that of a smoker who does not quit. The risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, cervix, and pancreas also decreases
15 years after quitting The risk of coronary heart disease is the same as a person who is a nonsmoker.

(Modified from American Cancer Society. Guide to quitting smoking. Accessed September 2, 2015.)

Cigarette smokers have a 70% greater chance of dying of heart disease than nonsmokers.

Step 3: Exercise regularly
Aim for 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity on most days of the week. To know if you are working at a moderate intensity, rate your exercise on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is very easy and 10 is extremely hard. If you are working between a 4 and 7, then you are working at moderate intensity. Three 10-minute bouts of physical activity, such as walking, can have many of the same benefits as one 30-minute bout.

Step 4: Reduce your salt intake
What does salt have to do with anything? Sodium is the main ingredient in salt that regulates body fluids and blood pressure. Sodium is a mineral that travels with water in the body. The more sodium you consume, the more fluid that leaves other places in your body to go into your bloodstream. This increases the volume of blood you have, which increases your blood pressure.

In recent years, the guidelines for sodium intake for good health have been lowered. Health experts recommend limiting sodium intake to less than 2 300 milligrams (mg)/day to help lower or control blood pressure, and to less than 1 500 mg/day for those who are over 50 years of age, African American, or have diabetes, chronic kidney disease, or hypertension. Many Americans eat more than 4 000 mg of sodium a day. Just one teaspoon of salt contains 2 300 mg of sodium! One easy way to reduce the sodium today is to remove the saltshaker from the table. 

Note: If buying a convenience food, choose entrees (main course) with less than 800 mg of sodium/serving. 


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