HIGH blood pressure is one of those conditions we hear about a lot, but have you ever actually had yours checked?
Around one in three of us are blighted by high blood pressure – and many people don’t even realise they have it.
In fact, around five million Brits are undiagnosed because symptoms of the silent-killer are often invisible, even though high blood pressure increases risk of stroke, heart attack, heart disease, kidney disease and even vascular dementia.
That’s why it’s so important to get yours checked, either at the GP surgery, a local pharmacy, or via a home test.
For those who do have it, a healthy diet is crucial to keep blood pressure under control and lower it.
And there are some food and drinks you should just downright avoid.
The more salt we eat, the higher our blood pressure.
Salt makes the body hold onto water and if you eat too much, extra water in the blood puts pressure on blood vessel walls.
The NHS tells us to eat no more than six grams of salt a day (approximately one teaspoon).
Be aware that salt also goes by the name sodium and pre-packaged food usually contains a lot, so make sure you check your food labels, even those you might think are healthy, like wholegrain bread or soup.
2. Sugar and sugary drinks
Drinking lots of sugary drinks may raise blood pressure.
High levels of sugar in the blood can lead to a build-up of fatty material inside blood vessels, causing them to narrow (atherosclerosis) and a build-up of pressure.
One study linked sugar-sweetened beverages to higher blood pressure levels in children and adolescents.
Some sugary drinks also contain caffeine which elevates blood pressure further.
3. Refined carbohydrates
Products made from white flour – like white bread, pasta and pizza dough – are rapidly broken down into simple sugars in the blood and in excess can lead to weight gain and increased blood pressure.
Sticking to a low carb diet has been shown to reduce systolic and diastolic (pressures in your arteries) blood pressure, as well as other risk factors for heart disease.
4. Processed and pre-packaged foods
These often contain a combination of the worst offenders – salt, sugar (or glucose-fructose syrup) and refined carbohydrates.
Ready meals and fast foods often owe their flavour to lots of added sugar and salt.
Also watch out for shop bought sandwiches, cereal, cereal bars, crackers and biscuits.
It’s true that caffeine raises blood pressure, so if you have a pre-existing condition, it’s not a good idea in excess.
However, these effects have been shown only to make an impact in the short short-term, and the NHS says if we stick to four cups(!) of tea and coffee, we should be fine.
In fact, people who drink caffeinated coffee or tea tend to have a lower risk of heart disease, including high blood pressure, than those who don’t!
Regularly drinking to excess can affect the muscles in blood vessels, causing them to narrow.
The NHS tells us that both men and women should stick to no more than 14 units a week – here’s how to find out how many units in your favourite drink.
Alcohol is also high in calories, which can make you gain weight and further increase blood pressure.
7. Red meat
The process of digesting and metabolising red meat – beef, lamb, veal, pork – can release compounds in the body which elevate blood pressure.
8. Deli and processed meats
Sausages, hot dogs, salami, ham, cured bacon, salted, cured or smoked meat, corned beef and dried meats are packed with sodium.
This is because manufacturers cure, season, and preserve these meats with salt.
9. Saturated and trans fats
Saturated fats (like butter) have long got a bad rap, according to Blood Pressure UK – they raise cholesterol and are linked to atherosclerosis.
Although more recent studies suggest some saturated fats may be protective in cardiovascular disease and the real culprits are the combination of trans fats and sugar found in processed foods, it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Government recommendations for men are to eat no more than 30g saturated fat a day, and women no more than 20g.
Trans fats are more damaging, they are found in hydrogenated vegetable oil and we should have no more than 5g per day.
Healthy fats found in olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds and low-fat dairy have been found to be protective in lowering blood pressure.
Ketchup, chilli sauce, soy sauce and salad dressings are often laden with salt and sugar – look for low sugar/salt varieties or make your own.
Keep salad dressing simple with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Sorry, but due to a combination of ingredients such as refined white flour, processed meat and cheese, and sugar laden tomato sauce, our favourite Italian take-away is usually high in sugar, saturated fat and salt.
Frozen pizza is the worst as it often has even more added sodium to preserve the flavour.
Make pizza healthier at home, using homemade dough, tomato sauce and top with plenty of veggies.
12. Canned soups
Useful to have in the cupboard but often packed with salt and/or sugar to preserve flavour.
Tomato soup is the worst offender so always choose low sugar/salt varieties.
Batch cook soup at home using low sodium stock cubes and freeze in portions which can be quickly defrosted on the stove or in the microwave.