January 28, 2020 | Punta Cana, Dominican Republic | Libna Stevens/IAD

One in three adults have high blood pressure or hypertension and half have their blood pressure under control, stated David R. Williams, PhD, MPH, Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston, United States, as he spoke to dozens of church administrators and health ministries directors gathered for Inter-American Division’s Health Summit held last week in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

“Another one in three adults have prehypertension, which means you haven’t crossed the threshold but it’s elevated and it’s just a matter of time,” said Williams as he quoted from a data done in the United States recently. Essentially high blood pressure (or HBP) is a very common illness in most modern societies, one that can be cured in six weeks, he said.  HBP is important because it raises risks of strokes, heart attacks, kidney disease and more, he said.

One diet Dr. Williams quoted that has been proven to stop hypertension is the DASH Diet developed by Dr. Franck Sacks, professor of nutrition.  “The diet lowers blood pressure as much as drug treatment, because the science is so clear,” said Williams.

Dr. David Williams, PhD, MPH, Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston, United States, encourages church health leaders to add flavor to foods without adding sodium [Photo: Libna Stevens/IAD]

“The idea behind the study is to look at vegetarians and other people around the world with low blood pressure and create a similar diet that would be acceptable in Americans,” said Williams. “The foods found in populations with low blood pressure were primarily fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, and whole grains. And they ate very little meat, sugar-containing beverages and desserts.”

Recommended by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, the DASH diet is plant based.

What is the DASH diet

The DASH diet includes whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruit, fish, low fat dairy foods, limited fats and oils, few sweets, and very limited red meat, sugar-containing beverages and desserts.

“It is really a diet with an enormous emphasis on foods in its natural state,” said Dr. Williams. Results showed a decrease of 15 points in blood pressure change in a period of six weeks. It also showed a reduction in cholesterol. “The Dash diet outperformed those traditional blood pressure medications,” he said.”

Fruits and vegetables in their natural state contain the perfect balance of potassium and sodium that the body needs, stated Dr. Williams. [Photo: unsplash]

The sodium intake is important because many persons with HBP are sodium sensitive, said Williams. Although salt diets do not affect everyone the same way, high-sodium diets make a huge impact. What’s more is that most sodium comes not from salt we add in cooking or salt from the table, he said.

The six foods that are the top contributors to sodium in American diets are known as the salty six: bread and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, poultry, soup in cans, and sandwiches.

“Believe it or not 77 percent of sodium comes from processed and restaurant foods,” said Dr. Williams. “If we are going to attack the problem of sodium, we need to look at what happens while we eat at home but think more broadly about the sources of sodium.”

The sodium/potassium ratio

It’s important to understand how much sodium there is in relation to how much potassium there is. “It is the sodium/potassium ratio that really matters profoundly for blood pressure,” added Williams.

Dr. David Williams goes over the “Hidden” Sources of Sodium on Labels, during his presentation.  [Photo: Libna Stevens/IAD]

“Imagine that at a level of every cell in your body there’s a civil war, a battle between sodium and potassium.  When there’s more sodium than potassium, the cell retains water and your pressure creates greater resistance that leads to blood pressure,” explained Williams.

When there’s more potassium than sodium, the body gets rid of sodium and water, and this reduces blood pressure, he added. “Our bodies then, need a lot more potassium than sodium every day,” said Williams.

Here is where the importance of fruits and vegetables is vital, said Williams. “Here’s the brilliance of our Creator in terms of the diet he created for us.”

Virtually every food that has been studied as it naturally comes from nature has more potassium than sodium, he said. “The Creator, created an abundance of fruits and grains that are all suited to keep your blood pressure nice and low. But the typical modern diet is the exact opposite.”

Food processing and preservation reduces potassium and increases sodium which means that once foods are changed to other forms, sodium is increased and potassium is decreased, explained Williams.

It’s really not that complicated. Eat foods as they naturally come from nature, he said. “God has created them in ways that are designed to keep our blood pressure nice and low.”

Healthy potassium to sodium ratio

How can you have healthy potassium to sodium ratio in your diet?

  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat frozen vegetables without added water and sauce.
  • Limit your use of canned foods
  • If necessary, use canned vegetables that are low in sodium
  • When using canned vegetables or beans, rinse to reduce some of the sodium.

Practical things to lower your consumption

  • Read food labels. Read ingredients list and recognize that all manufacturers are required to list foods in the order of proportion.
  • Read labels to identify food products that are lower in sodium.
  • Look for foods with a 5 percent daily value or less for sodium
  • A food product with daily value of 20 percent is high.
  • Check packages on fresh meats and poultry to see if salt water or saline has been added.
  • Look at labels on cheese and dairy products, as some are high in sodium.

Add flavors with herbs without adding sodium

  • Use herbs, spices, or salt-free seasoning blends.
  • Chopped vegetables like onions, peppers and garlic.
  • Lemon and lime juice.

A study on sodium versus potassium and mortality, which followed more than 12,000 adults in the United States for 15 years, showed that higher sodium was associated with increased overall risk of death and higher potassium intake was associated with lower overall mortality, explained Williams.

The National Cancer Institute also showed the relation between diet and cancer and what can be done to reduce the risk of cancer. “People with diets rich in fruits and vegetables have lower risk of getting cancers,” said Williams.

One in three cancer deaths was related to dietary factors: diet low in fat and with five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day is key. “Diets rich in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli cauliflower and Lycopene rich foods like tomato sauce, tomato paste may reduce the risk of prostate cancer.”

Williams further explained that the government scientists are saying that to reduce the risk of cancer, you must have nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily.  The bottom line is that lowering blood pressure has to do with good nutrition, high potassium, low salt, regular exercise, losing weight, avoiding smoking, avoiding alcohol, limiting fat intake, managing stress, and putting things into perspective, said Williams.

“Medications do not cure high blood pressure, but make sure you talk to your doctor,” said Williams.

To view Dr. David Williams’ presentation and others on Thursday, Jan. 23, Click HERE

To visit our photo gallery of Inter-America’s Health Summit event, Click HERE

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