Hypertension: How to Prevent and Treat the Silent Killer

doctor with a stethoscope holding a heart

Up to 90% of Canadian adults will develop high blood pressure (or “hypertension”) in their lifetime. Since it has no symptoms, hypertension is often called the silent killer because you may not know that you have it. Having hypertension increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. For this reason, it is important to have your doctor check your blood pressure regularly. You should follow a healthy diet and stay physically active to help prevent and manage hypertension.

What is hypertension?

Your heart pumps blood throughout your body. Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. Hypertension is when blood moves through your arteries at a higher pressure than normal. It is dangerous because it makes the heart work harder than it usually does. This can damage the arteries and lead to heart disease, kidney problems and stroke.

Over 25% of Canadians have hypertension. It becomes more common as you get older. You are more likely to develop hypertension if you:

have a family history of hypertension

  • are obese
  • are not active
  • smoke
  • are very stressed
  • drink too much alcohol
  • eat too much sodium in your diet.

Can changing my diet help prevent or treat hypertension?

Yes. Your diet can play a major role in either causing or preventing hypertension. Blood pressure can be controlled or lowered by following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan.  

The DASH eating plan includes:

  • Lots of vegetables and fruit
  • Plenty of low fat milk products, such as skim or 1% milk and yogurt
  • An emphasis on whole grains
  • More fish, poultry, lentil, beans and nuts, but less red meat
  • Choosing fewer foods that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol
  • Eating less sodium 
  • Limiting sugar and sweets
  • Choosing foods that are high in calcium, magnesium, and potassium
  • Aiming for 30 gram of fibre. 

For more information on DASH, please click here

A note on sodium and hypertension

About 30% of Canadians have hypertension because they eat too much sodium. If you reduce your sodium intake, you can lower your blood pressure level. Here are some tips to control your sodium intake:

At the Grocery Store

  • Choose fewer processed foods. Over 75% of the sodium we eat comes from processed foods such as cheese, deli meats, pizza, sauces and soups. Buy unsalted and lower sodium foods whenever possible. Look for words such as “sodium-free”, “low sodium”, “reduced sodium”, or ”no added salt” on the package.  
  • Compare food labels. Buy the products with the lowest amounts of sodium.  Even foods that don’t taste salty may contain sodium.
  • Looks for products with a sodium content of less 360 mg or less than 15% DV (Daily Value) per serving. Buy fresh or frozen vegetables whenever possible, lower sodium vegetable juices, and canned vegetables that are low in sodium.
  • Enjoy a variety of grains such as barley, quinoa and rice which are naturally sodium free.
  • Buy unseasoned meat, poultry, fish, seafood and tofu. Choose unsalted nuts. Buy low sodium canned beans or try dried beans, peas and lentils. 

At Home

  • Prepare your own meals often, using little or no salt. This will help you avoid salty restaurant food.
  • Make your own soups, sauces and salad dressings.
  • Cook pasta, rice or hot cereal without adding salt.
  • Rinse canned vegetables and canned beans to wash away some of the sodium.
  • Use less salt than what the recipe calls for, except when baking.
  • Use less of the seasoning that comes with pre-packaged foods. Use less ketchup, soy sauce and other condiments, or try the lower sodium option.
  • Add flavour without sodium. Try herbs and spices instead. 

When Eating Out

  • Order smaller portions or share with someone.
  • Ask for gravy, sauces and salad dressings “on the side”, and use only small amounts.
  • Flavour your food with lemon or pepper instead of adding salt, sauces or gravy.
  • Ask for your meal to be cooked without salt or monosodium glutamate (MSG).
  • Check the nutrition information of menu items before you order and choose foods with less sodium. This information may be in a poster or pamphlet at the restaurant or on the restaurant’s website.
  • Balance out your day. If you ate a high sodium restaurant meal today, make sure you eat a lower sodium meal at home.. 

Factors beyond diet

By managing your hypertension, you can cut your heart attack risk by up to 25%. In addition to following DASH and eating less sodium, here are some other things you can do to help you prevent and treat hypertension. 

  • Have your blood pressure checked regularly – at least once every two years. Have it checked more often if your blood pressure is high.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Even a loss of 10% of your body weight can reduce your chance of having a heart attack or stroke.
  • Control stress. Consider relaxation therapies such as yoga, tai chi or meditation.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking increases the risk of developing heart disease. For help getting started, visit Smokers’ Helpline.
  • Be physically active. Aim for 30-60 minutes of exercise at least four times per week. Try walking, jogging, cycling or swimming. If you’re new to activity, speak to your doctor before getting started.
  • Your doctor may suggest medicine to help treat hypertension. Follow your doctor’s directions exactly for taking the medication.
  • Limit alcohol. Have no more than 1 to 2 drinks per day and no more than 9 per week for women and 14 for men.

The Bottom Line

Following a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity and balanced eating can help prevent and treat hypertension. The DASH eating plan can help you enjoy delicious foods while keeping blood pressure levels under control.

You may also be interested in:

Stroke prevention

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Last Update – January 29, 2019

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