Read on for easy meal planning and preparation tips to help with lowering your blood pressure

Do you ‘know your numbers’?

If you’ve ever experienced low blood pressure you’ll know it can be recognised by symptoms such as light-headedness, nausea, blurred vision or even fainting, and is often associated with a particular condition or illness, but what are the signs of high blood pressure? This is hard to answer because there are no immediately noticeable symptoms for high blood pressure, but the long term effects can put a huge strain on your body and consequently can contribute to a number of health problems.  

As there are no obvious signs that you may have high blood pressure, the only way to really know if you’re at risk is to get tested – a very simple check that can be done at your GP surgery.

High blood pressure means you have a reading of 140 over 90 (140/90) or above and anything higher than 120/80 means you should be trying to lower it. The ideal figure we should all be aiming for is between 90/60 and 120/80. Have a look at the blood pressure chart to see this in more detail. 

This month Blood Pressure UK launched their ‘Know Your Numbers!’ campaign, offering free tests and encouraging everyone to become more aware of their blood pressure level and the effect it can have on their health. 

What are the long term effects of high blood pressure?

Think about the blood moving through your body, pumped by your heart, flowing through your veins and arteries. Now at normal blood pressure the blood flows smoothly and easily through the vessels and organs but imagine if that blood is under high pressure, then the blood pushes against the blood vessels, the heart and other organs, putting a lot of extra strain on them, which over time can greatly increase the risk of many illnesses but most significant are heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

What causes high blood pressure?

There are a number of factors that can contribute to high blood pressure, and unfortunately, there are some that you can’t do anything about such as age, gender, other health conditions, family history and race – African Carribeans are at higher risk than those of other backgrounds. But there are also risk factors that you do have control over such as your weight, your level of exercise, your diet, smoking and long term lack of sleep.

How can we lower our blood pressure and reduce the risk of high blood pressure?

Reducing your blood pressure and maintaining it at a healthy level can be done by leading a healthy lifestyle – First off, if you smoke then quit! Secondly, make sure you do some form of physical exercise, whether it’s a fitness class or a walk around the block, you should be exercising on a daily basis. And combined with exercise is a very important factor in diet. It is important for us all to maintain a healthy weight as this can also contribute to increased blood pressure, and following a healthy diet for your optimum weight will also be a good diet for lowering your blood pressure. 

Meal Planning and Preparation for Healthy Blood Pressure

If you have no other contributing factors, then, on the whole, eating a healthy balanced diet and having a healthy lifestyle should be sufficient to maintain your blood pressure at a healthy level. However, if you do find your blood pressure is high or you are at risk of high blood pressure then let’s keep it simple when thinking about planning your meals. There are some key things to bear in mind:

  • Reduce your salt intake
  • Eat less processed foods and when you do, look for the low sodium options
  • Reduce your saturated fat and sugar intake
  • Increase your potassium and fibre intake
  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables

Reduce Your Salt Intake

One of the most significant dietary causes of high blood pressure is too much salt – without getting into the technicalities, salt makes your body retain more water, which results in the extra water-raising your blood pressure. The recommended amount of salt we eat in a day is less than 6g which is only about 1 teaspoon. It can be very difficult to reduce salt in the diet as it is added to so many everyday foods that we buy and you’ll often find it in places you never expected. I’ve been through my own cupboards and put together a little quiz for you. 

Which of the following items contain added salt?

Bolognese sauce

Granola bar

Honey Nut Cheerios

Bread

Gravy granules

Nesquik chocolate milk powder

And the answer is…?

All of the above!

So you see, it’s not always obvious which items are going to have added salt so you really need to check your labels. However, food labelling has become a little clearer in recent years and the quick way to see whether a processed food is high in salt is to check the ‘traffic light label’ which you often see now on the front of packaging – so if the label is green for salt then you know it’s low.

There are also many low or reduced-salt versions of staple foods (it may sometimes say ‘sodium’ instead of salt), so go for these instead or look for ‘no-added salt’ on the label which means that any salt in the product is naturally present from the ingredients. 

As you’ll see if you inspect your own cupboards, processed food does contain a lot of added salt, so a key way to reduce the salt in your diet is to reduce the number of processed foods you eat or cook with. And when it comes to cooking, the obvious answer here is don’t add salt, and definitely don’t add salt to your food at the table, in fact, take that salt cellar off the table right now!  

Now if you’re used to adding salt when you cook you may think that your food will taste bland without it, so try these tips:

  • Use black pepper to season at the table 
  • Add fresh herbs and spices when cooking meat, pasta or vegetables
  • Bake or roast vegetables such as peppers, courgettes, parsnips and tomatoes – this really brings out their flavour and you won’t even think about needing salt
  • Rather than buying jars and tins, make your own fresh pasta sauces, soup, stock and gravy, adding spices and herbs for flavour. You can then freeze these so you have them ready when needed

Reduce Your Saturated Fat and Sugar Intake

We probably all know that saturated fats are not good for you and are a source of the wrong kind of cholesterol. Too much of this cholesterol can build up in your arteries adding to the risk of heart disease and stroke, so if you have high blood pressure this increases your risk even further. Saturated fats and sugar also contribute to weight gain which also puts extra strain on your vascular system so a low fat, low sugar diet will help with keeping your blood pressure at a healthy level. So when planning your meals, avoid eating too much red meat, butter and high fat cheese, instead choose chicken, lean meat, fish and margarine and oils containing polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats such as sunflower oil, rapeseed oil or olive oil. 

Eat more fruit, vegetables and pulses

We all know that eating more fruit and vegetables is recommended for a healthy diet and we should all be eating our 5 a day. Fruit, vegetables and pulses are a source of fibre, vitamins and minerals which can help to lower your blood pressure, among other benefits.

Potassium, in particular, can help lower blood pressure by balancing out the negative effects of salt. There are many fruits and vegetable-rich in potassium that can be easily incorporated into your meal plans; they can be used fresh, frozen, dried or as juice. Just avoid the canned versions of fruit and vegetables as they don’t retain their nutrients so well and watch out for added salt or sugar.

So nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary, you just need to think about adding more or these fruits and vegetables to your meals and snacks every day – and of course, combine this with reducing the amount of salt so you don’t undo your good work.  

Keeping Up the Good Work

The key things to remember for a diet to reduce high blood pressure are: DON’T add salt, use other spices and herbs to add flavour. Reduce the amount of processed foods you use and always look for the low sodium or no-added salt option when you do.

Increase your fruit and veg intake and make sure you include some of those good sources of potassium. Eat more low-fat and high fibre foods to keep a good balance. With just a little bit of thought and planning, meal preparation for lowering blood pressure is quite straight forward and with just a little adaptation you’ll still be able to enjoy all your favourite dinners.