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Managing Blood Pressure with a Heart-Healthy Diet

What are the benefits of heart-healthy eating?

Eating a heart-healthy diet is important for managing your blood pressure and reducing your risk of heart attack, stroke and other health threats.

Aim to eat a diet that’s rich in:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole-grains
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Skinless poultry and fish
  • Nuts and legumes
  • Non-tropical vegetable oils

Limit:

  • Saturated and trans fats
  • Sodium
  • Red meat (if you do eat red meat, compare labels and select the leanest cuts available)
  • Sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages

Be sure to work with the “chefs” in your household and plan together for any dietary changes that are needed. When cooking at home, try heart-healthy recipes. When dining out, look for healthy options.


Read the labels
By adopting the habit of reading food labels, you can choose foods more wisely. Watch for foods that have saturated fat or trans fat — factors that can raise your cholesterol. Eating foods that are high in sodium (salt) can increase blood pressure. Generally, the higher your salt intake, the higher your blood pressure.


Look for the Heart-Check mark
With so many marketing messages being thrown at you in the grocery store, it can be difficult to know what is truly healthy. To make it easier, the American Heart Association (AHA) developed the Heart-Check mark. When you see this symbol on food packaging, it means that the product meets AHA criteria for saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium for a single serving of the food product for healthy people over age 2.


The DASH eating plan
As its name implies, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan is designed to help you manage blood pressure. Emphasizing healthy food sources, it also limits:

  • Red meat
  • Sodium (salt)
  • Sweets, added sugars and sugar-containing beverages

In addition to being easy to follow, delicious and varied, the DASH eating plan is proven effective. Download a PDF of the complete DASH eating plan.


Craving a cup of joe? What does the research say about coffee and your health?

  Coffee. Cup of joe. Java. No matter what you call it, millions of people worldwide wake up and fuel their day with it. And though consumers might be jittery about the recent court battle in California over cancer warnings, experts say most of the science actually indicates coffee could have health benefits.

“The overall picture is quite clear,” said Dr. Frank Hu, chair of nutrition at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “There is no long-term increased risk of major chronic disease, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease or even cancer.”

The java confusion stems over an eight-year court case. A Los Angeles-based judge’s preliminary decision last month requires cancer warning labels because of concerns about acrylamide, a chemical produced during the roasting process. Acrylamide also is present in some fried or roasted starchy foods, including french fries, potato chips, breakfast cereals and toast. It’s also found in cigarette smoke. The judge gave the coffee industry a few weeks to file appeals and could issue a final ruling late this month.

But there’s little evidence acrylamide levels in food cause cancer in humans. Studies have found no consistent evidence acrylamide exposure in food is associated with cancer risk, according to the National Cancer Institute. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed more than 1,000 human and animal studies and issued a statement in 2016 that “found no conclusive evidence for a carcinogenic effect of drinking coffee.”

“The California judge’s decision to label coffee as a cancer risk is really inconsistent with the scientific literature,” Hu said. “It’s very misleading and has already caused a huge amount of confusion in the general public. The health outcomes have been remarkably consistent.”

Hu was senior author of a 2015 study in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation that concluded people who regularly drink moderate amounts of coffee daily — fewer than five cups — experienced a lower risk of death from heart and neurological diseases.

About four years ago, the U.S. government gave coffee its OK, too. The Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines for all Americans, published every five years as a go-to source for nutrition advice, said three to five cups a day, which can be up to 400 milligrams a day of caffeine, can be part of a healthy diet. The AHA suggests that people who have an arrhythmia, an abnormal heart rhythm, talk to their health care provider about caffeine intake.

“This guidance on coffee is informed by strong and consistent evidence showing that, in healthy adults, moderate coffee consumption is not associated with an increased risk of major chronic diseases (e.g., cancer) or premature death, especially from cardiovascular disease,” the federal guidelines say. “However, individuals who do not consume caffeinated coffee or other caffeinated beverages are not encouraged to incorporate them into their eating pattern.”

More recently, a review of more than 200 studies published last fall in the BMJ concluded three to four cups a day may be “more likely to benefit health than harm.” It found a lower risk of liver disease and some cancers in coffee drinkers, and a lower risk of dying from stroke.

All of that should be good news to the people around the world who drink more than 1.1 billion cups of coffee each day.

But it’s still easy to be confused. A quick search for coffee and health online yields hundreds, even thousands, of results.

Studies abound – some funded by the coffee industry. For example, a European Journal of Nutrition study investigated the effects of coffee and its antioxidant properties and found no effect. Researchers took blood samples of 160 volunteers who drank up to three to five cups of coffee or water each day for eight weeks.

“Up to five cups of coffee per day had no detectable effect, either beneficial or harmful, on human health,” that study concluded. It was funded by Kraft Foods, which makes Maxwell House coffees.

Of course, “no one is talking about coffee as a magic bullet,” Hu said. He and other experts say it’s important to keep track of the bigger picture, with the focus on moderation and dietary patterns.

“You can’t pin anything on any one specific lifestyle behavior, particularly with diet,” said Alice Lichtenstein, a senior scientist and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston and past chair of the AHA’s nutrition committee.

“When we talk about diet, it should really be about the whole package, not single items. Right now, the majority of the evidence suggests there may be a health benefit from drinking coffee and there doesn’t seem to be any disadvantage. Of course, with a caveat that you don’t want to add a lot of cream and sugar, or to use it as an excuse to have a few cookies or a pastry. Then, there is a downside,” said Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy who also was an advisor on the federal dietary guidelines.

“We have a tendency to focus on one or two specific foods or beverages, and that’s when the whole floor falls out from under us.”


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