Matters of the Heart

By Janet Bond Brill, PhD, RD, LDN, FAND

Heart disease is not just a man’s demise. One in thirty women die of breast cancer, but one in three die from cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks or stroke. Women need to take control of their cardiovascular health and learn the risk factors.

The Dangers of High Blood Pressure in Women

Heart attacks disable or kill men often in their forties and fifties, during their most productive years. And while women take a decade to catch up, heart attacks and stroke are the leading cause of death for them too.

High blood pressure is the number one cause of stroke and a major risk factor for heart attacks. In fact, high blood pressure contributes to more deaths in men and women than any other preventable factor. But the good news is, it can easily be controlled.

What is a healthy blood pressure reading? The medical community states that a normal blood pressure reading is less than 120/80 mm Hg. Above this number is the danger zone. What causes high blood pressure? There can be any number of factors, such as sedentary lifestyle, obesity, high salt intake, or simply aging. A poor diet high in bad fats and salt, like processed foods, contributes to weight gain, creates a mineral imbalance in the body, and raises blood pressure. Not getting enough exercise makes matters worse.

One of the most effective ways to decrease your pressure is to cut back on salt. High sodium intake is undoubtedly linked to the development of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), everyone should strive to cap sodium intake at 1,500 mg a day – that’s just a little over half a teaspoon of salt. Yet, the average American eats almost triple that amount. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nine in 10 American adults eat way too much salt.

Here are a few surprisingly simple tips for cutting back on salt:

Eat more fresh foods
As long as so much of our food supply is laden with salt, your best bet is to “make” your own food. Choose fresh and unprocessed foods instead of processed ones whenever possible. The vast majority of natural, whole fruits and vegetables contain only a minimal amount of sodium. Buy fresh or frozen produce with no added salt. Frequent salad bars and load up on unprocessed fruit and veggies.

Read food labels and compare between brands
Always check the ingredient list for sodium, MSG, baking soda, and other sodium-containing compounds. You will be surprised at the tremendous difference between brands in terms of sodium content. Only products that are labeled “low sodium” or “sodium free.” Low sodium is defined as less than 140 mg; high sodium is more than 480 mg per serving.

Rinse canned foods and dilute high-sodium content
Buy low-sodium beans and tuna and rinse in a strainer to drain off more of the salt. Cook pasta, cereals, and rice without added salt. Add salt-free beans, veggies, or grains like brown rice to take-out, packaged, or frozen foods to dilute the sodium count.

Throw out the seasoning packets
Flavor rice or pasta yourself, and keep your intake of boxed foods or canned soups to a minimum. Watch condiments such as soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, ketchup, mustard, pickles, capers, and olives. Use very little or omit them entirely from your diet. Use sprays, balsamic and other types of vinegar, and extra-virgin olive oil to flavor your food without salt.

Avoid convenience foods
Cut down on foods that come in a box, bag, or bottle (other than unsalted nuts or dried fruit). Pass on the take-out pizza. It’s essentially salty breads doused with salty tomato sauce, and topped with salty, fatty cheese. Remember, you can make almost anything from scratch, quickly, easily, and without spending hours in the kitchen. Think how you can use your rice cooker, Cuisinart®, slow cooker, and blender to prepare all kinds of healthy foods. Salt-free seasoning blends, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, vinegars, and even peanut butter can be used for flavoring.

Order it your way
When eating out, order plain food without added sodium. Take care to customize your order, and ask for your food to be prepared without salt. Don’t be afraid to be assertive with your waiter or the chef. Order sauces and dressings on the side. Ask for condiments that are low in sodium. Be careful with take-outs and cheap eats. Salt makes even cheap food taste better.

Use herbs and spices in lieu of salt
Eat at home as often as possible, cooking fresh foods. Eliminate added salt and use chopped fresh herbs and spices to flavor food. Add herbs like rosemary, parsley, dill, chives, cilantro, and basil; spices such as cinnamon, cumin, and nutmeg; and seasonings like lemon and lime juice, hot sauce, wasabi paste, vinegar, pepper, and salt-free seasoning blends. They all make great salt substitutes.

Get rid of the saltshaker
A dash of table salt contains about 155 mg of sodium. So be careful with the saltshaker. Keep the pepper mill handy on the table, along with hot sauce and spice mixes. Find lower-sodium alternative seasonings that appeal to your taste buds. If you are more adventurous, flavor foods with sliced fresh ginger, garlic and garlic powder, a touch of horseradish (1 tablespoon of prepared horseradish contains 47 mg sodium), and other lower-sodium condiments.

Check medication and supplements ingredient labels
Scrutinize the labels of all over-the-counter medications and vitamin supplements for sodium content. Look for low-sodium varieties instead.

Savor your salt
Save those salty favorite foods for special treats. The sodium content in many foods you consume unknowingly really adds up. So be sure to watch portion sizes of bread, and cut way back on (or eliminate) processed meats, deli meats, sodium-heavy cheeses, pizzas, and pasta dishes. When you do splurge on a salty treat, watch your sodium intake especially carefully for the rest of the day. Use higher-sodium condiments such as ketchup, barbeque sauce, mustard, pickles, olives, and Worcestershire sauce sparingly.

As a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, it is my job to translate the evidence-based guidelines into dietary advice that will help prevent heart disease in Americans, which is the nation’s leading cause of death in both men and women. Most deaths in American women are caused by cardiovascular disease, which is highly preventable. Getting your blood pressure down will help battle this statistic and enable women to better take control of their heart health.

Janet Bond Brill, PhD, RD, LDN, FAND is the author of the books, “Prevent a Second Heart Attack, 8 Foods, 8 Weeks to Reverse Heart Disease” (Random House/Crown Publishing 2011), “Cholesterol Down: 10 Simple Steps to Lower Your Cholesterol in 4 Weeks Without Prescription Drugs” (Random House/Crown Publishing 2006) and Blood Pressure DOWN (Three Rivers Press, 2013). She is a leading diet- and nutrition writer, educator, and practitioner, and consults for the health- and fitness industry, specializing in cardiovascular disease prevention. For more information, please visit: or

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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