by Kristin Palmer
Last fall, for the first time in 13 years, the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association released new guidelines to measure blood pressure resulting in nearly half of all Americans being considered hypertensive, or having high blood pressure. High blood pressure is now considered to be 130/80, where previously it was 140/90, and its risk factors include lack of exercise, unhealthy eating, lack of sleep, stress, high cholesterol, smoking and diabetes.
Local registered dietician, Kathy Zehntner, with Saint Thomas Medical Partners in Brentwood, TN and Franklin, TN, provides one-on-one as well as group session nutrition counseling. She works with patients on a daily basis who are interested in many nutrition-based ideas ranging from ways to lose weight while not starving, learning how to eat and why certain meals lead to fatigue to lowering blood sugars with food and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.
On the heels of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association’s American Heart Month (February), in which heart-health education is highlighted and celebrated all month long, and headed right into Nutrition Month (March), it seemed like the perfect time to get some answers about high blood pressure and heart health from Zehntner.
“My perspective of the new recommendations is similar to that of a speed bump in the road. It is helping us to slow down and analyze that something big is ahead and we need to watch out,” says Zehntner.
Zehntner admits that obesity, which is often the root cause of hypertension, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, along with others, is frequently the reason patients come to her and she’s seen an uptick of hypertensive patients seeking help in maintaining and lowering blood pressure with lifestyle change since the new blood pressure guidelines were released by the AHA/ASA.
Understanding that any type of change can be hard, especially when it comes to lifestyle change (diet and exercise) and that everyone is different, Zehntner works to base her patients’ personal goals on the style of each individual patient.
“Everyone is different, and goals for patients are not the same. I like to meet the person where they are in their journey,” says Zehntner. “I emphasize that eating should be joyful and wellness can be achieved within a paradigm of positive and healthy attitudes toward eating and food.”
Zehntner sees some patients who really need to consider a full lifestyle change, meaning a positive change in diet and exercise. Seems hard, right? Can we just pick one? Diet or exercise? Zehntner says no.
“They are extremely important and are both valued the same. It is most definitely a team approach.”
Now knowing that nearly fifty percent of Americans are walking around with high blood pressure, some not even knowing it, we’ve got to learn to implement ways to combat hypertension before it gets worse.
The American Heart Association and American Stroke Association recommends making some simple changes that matter: eat a well-balanced, low-salt diet, limit alcohol, regular exercise, manage stress, maintain a healthy weight, don’t smoke, and work with your doctor. Zehntner also recommends starting with a similar approach.
“The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) which focuses on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and limited intake of total fat and saturated fat, would be some of the most effective advice I would provide. Also, encouraging foods high in potassium, magnesium, calcium and fiber may alter the results of a high-salt diet. Additionally, I discuss portion sizes and if the patient is ‘living to eat or eating to live’.”
Furthermore, Zehntner discusses with her patients contributing factors that can affect blood pressure: overweight/obesity, sodium intake, potassium intake, lack of physical activity and alcohol consumption.
“Also, I make sure fresh clementine oranges are available to each patient as they checkout from their appointment. The goal is for them to leave with a reminder of how food is medicine.”
A main priority for Zehntner and Saint Thomas Health in caring for their patients is ensuring a healthy heart and knowing risk factors to stay heart healthy. The new high blood pressure guideline emphasize their priority and Saint Thomas Health is even committed to the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women initiative to motivate women specifically to take action against heart disease.
American Heart Month, which is kicked off with the iconic National Wear Red Day for women’s heart health, taught us that heart disease is the number one killer of all women and that 80% of cardiac events can be prevented with education and lifestyles changes. Zehntner encourages her patients, women and men, to “choose food as medicine, rather than taking medicine for the wrong kinds of food they are eating.”