High blood pressure (a.k.a. hypertension) prevention might not be something you think about in your day-to-day. But if you want to protect your heart, it should be—especially if you’re a woman.
Nearly half of all adults with high blood pressure are women, according to the American Heart Association. Plus, it’s a leading cause of heart disease and stroke.
Hypertension—what happens when the force of your blood exerts too much pressure on the walls of your blood vessels—is a blood pressure reading of 140 mm Hg/80 mm Hg or greater. However, your doctor may also consider you to have high blood pressure if your numbers are consistently higher than 130 mm Hg/80 mm Hg because damage to the body can still occur.
A healthy blood pressure range can keep your heart strong and even help you live longer, says Lawrence Fine, MD, Branch Chief of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) Clinical Applications branch.
The heart-healthy eating plan, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, emphasizes plant-based foods, low sodium intake, and moderate portion sizes.
Unlike the diets you’re used to hearing about, DASH requires no hard-to-find foods or fasting. Instead, it provides daily and weekly nutritional goals and can be adapted to fit any dietary restrictions, explains NHLBI Clinical Applications branch program director Holly Nicastro, PhD, MPH.
Keep the below DASH tips in the back of your mind while shopping for groceries and planning out weekly meals, and you’ll be on your way to developing a heart-healthy lifestyle.
The DASH diet emphasizes vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy foods—and moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry and nuts, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“When it comes to plant-based foods, more is better,” says Nicastro. Fruits and veggies serve up potassium, a mineral that promotes healthy blood pressure by keeping sodium levels in check.
The above foods are also high in fiber—along with whole grains—another key nutrient for heart health. In fact, adults with metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions that increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes) who upped their fiber intake for a year lost weight, lowered their blood pressure, and improved their blood sugar without making any other changes to their diet, found one recent NHLBI study.
Shopping tip: Choose fresh or frozen produce whenever possible—it’s lower in sodium than canned.
Protein is a must for making meals filling and satisfying, and lean sources are tied to healthier blood pressure levels. Eat fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids—such as salmon, herring and tuna—which can help lower your total cholesterol, suggests the Mayo Clinic. Then add in fat-free dairy products, which are lower in calories and artery-clogging saturated fats.
Sugary snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages add empty calories to your diet, plus they can raise your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, Nicastro explains.
There’s no need to swear off ice cream or cookies for good. (Phew.) Just reserve them for once or twice a week as a reward for things like acing that big presentation or making it through the longest Monday ever—and stick with a single serving.
Shopping tip: For an everyday way to satisfy your sweet tooth, shop for your favorite seasonal fresh fruit instead. And consider pairing it with a 1-oz serving of dark chocolate, which is sold pre-portioned—so you’re not temped to over do it.
It’s one of the best things you can do to keep your ticker in top shape. “Saturated fat raises blood LDL cholesterol (‘bad’ cholesterol) levels, further increasing a woman’s risk for cardiovascular disease,” Nicastro says.
Sat fat hides in fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils like coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils—so limit these foods to once in a while and keep your portions small.
Cooking tip: Try swapping full-fat cheese for guacamole or hummus in sandwiches, and cook with olive oil instead of coconut.
Another thing to keep in mind? A heart-healthy diet doesn’t have to be fat free. Just stick with unsaturated fat sources like vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.
Cooking tip: Drizzle 1 tsp olive oil on your salad, snack on 1/3 c nuts, or top oatmeal or toast with 2 tbsp nut butter. Since fats are high in calories, you’ll need to keep your portions in check too.