By Aliya Haq, MS, RD, CD
Nutrition Services Supervisor, International Community Health Services (ICHS)
As a nutritionist at International Community Health Services (ICHS), a nonprofit health center, I see first-hand how a healthy diet can help avoid, delay, or reduce the need for medication for many chronic conditions, including high blood pressure.
One in three adults in the United States has high blood pressure. More than half don’t have it under control, putting them at risk of heart failure, kidney damage, stroke, and other serious health problems.
While we all love a quick fix, medication comes with potential side effects many people could do without. For example, a patient came to me and said, “I do not want to go on medication. Nutrition and exercise. That’s it.” Her blood pressure and cholesterol levels were high, and she fit the profile for future heart disease. She followed my advice and all of her labs came back normal. Her changes in diet and exercise provided huge benefits.
My first appointment will take the longest. I want to get to know you and how willing you are to make a change. Who do you live with? What cultural practices and foods are important to you? How accessible and affordable are healthy foods? How much time do you have to cook? Do you eat a lot of fast food?
I will also make sure you have a clear understanding of chronic disease. Conditions like stroke, blood pressure, and blood sugar are what we call silent killers. You don’t see the signs that something is wrong until there is already significant damage.
Then, I help you set realistic goals and prioritize the lifestyle changes you will make, starting with the habits that are the most harmful. For example, if a patient is a smoker who is also overweight, that’s what we will work on first. Even cutting down on cigarettes will help lower blood pressure.
Success depends on compliance and readiness, not touch-of-a-button expectations. I tell my patients to:
Be consistent. We eat several times a day. Put time and effort into making healthy choices with each meal.
Be patient. The time it takes to see results depends on the number of changes. Give each change a month to make.
Parents also need to make changes. I see more and more young children developing high blood pressure. Parents need to set practices for healthy eating that benefit the whole family.
Find support within a group. A support group can provide understanding and camaraderie to make lifestyle changes and living with a chronic condition easier.
The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, and reduces saturated fat and cholesterol. DASH provides lifelong control of high blood pressure with healthy eating.
It’s possible for anyone and everyone to eat healthier. If you have no time, make healthy fast food.
If cost is an issue, purchase fresh fruits and vegetables when they are in season. Asian food traditions have many healthy options, but you can modify unhealthy dishes so they are better for you, like mixing some brown rice with white rice. Everyone has the capacity to change. My job is to help bring that change out of you.
ICHS Heart Healthy Recipe:
Chinese Cabbage Tofu Soup
This is a nourishing plant-based soup that is made with healthy fats and low sodium. It tastes even better the next day, after the flavors have mellowed and deepened.
Total prep and cook time: 30 minutes
- 1 Tbsp. olive or sunflower seed oil
- 1 small onion, quartered and thinly sliced
- 2 cups firmly packed, finely shredded Napa or Savoy cabbage
- ¾ cup thinly sliced small white or brown button mushrooms
- One 6 ounce can sliced water chestnuts, undrained
- One 32 ounce carton low-sodium vegetable broth
- 1 Tbsp. lemon or lime juice OR 1 tsp. rice vinegar
- 1 Tbsp. low sodium soy sauce
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 cup snow peas or frozen peas
- 8 ounces extra firm tofu, cut into ½ inch dice
- 2 Tbsp. minced parsley
- Heat the vegetable broth to boiling in a separate saucepan
- Heat the oil on medium low in a large soup po
- Add the onion and sauté until transparent
- Add the mushrooms and sauté another few minutes
- Add the cabbage and snow peas (if using). Sauté just until wilted
- Add the frozen peas (if using), tofu, broth, lemon or lime juice or vinegar, soy sauce, salt and pepper to taste
- Cover and simmer over low heat for 5-10 minutes
- Remove from heat. Add parsley and serve at once
Cooking tip: It’s important not to overcook the veggies in this soup, so it doesn’t develop a strong boiled cabbage taste. Let the soup simmer just until the veggies are tender.