The standard advice for those of us with hypertension is to eat our “5 a day”, lose weight and take more exercise. From that triumvirate, many doctors argue that becoming more active is the most important. Recently published research has turned that on its head. It seems like Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek physician was right all those years ago.
A major cause of hypertension
There are many potential causes of hypertension. Apart from our age, for most of us in the West, the main cause of our condition is that we are overweight. According to figures from the World Health Organization, 1 in 10 people will be obese by 2015, and nearly one in three of the worldwide population is expected to be overweight. Why that is so has been the subject of debate for many years.
2 main theories
There are two main theories why there has been an epidemic of overweight and obese people in the ‘Western World’
The first theory, and the one that is currently dominant, is that the obesity epidemic is on the same (approximate) 50 year time-line as the explosion in labour saving devices and ownership of motor vehicles that has resulted in our current sedentary lifestyle. Proponents of this theory point to the time only a few decades ago when car ownership was lower and there were many fewer labour saving devices. They also point out that we now spend a lot time engaged in passive entertainments such as watching TV, watching videos at home and playing computer games. People’s lifestyles were naturally more active as they walked longer distances and more often, housework was much more labour intensive and even gardening was more physically demanding.
Our modern diet
The other theory says that although the level physical activity is important, the root cause of the obesity epidemic is our ‘Western diet’. Supporters of this theory point to the rapid growth in the availability of highly processed convenience foods, many of which contain high amounts of saturated fats, refined sugar and sodium, many of which were not available 50 years ago.
They also point to something else that has happened to our diet. The portion sizes have got a lot bigger. Their argument is that we are consuming far more saturated fat and sodium than we did five decades ago and it is this surge in our calorie intake that is fuelling the obesity epidemic and causing a myriad of health problems including high blood pressure.
Hunter gatherers versus modern man
A team of scientists from Tanzania, UK and USA have recently been studying a tribe of hunter gatherers in Tanzania. A study published in PLoS One, the peer reviewed open journal and reported by the BBC, tested the theory that our modern sedentary lifestyle is the main cause of the obesity epidemic, by looking at energy expenditure in the Hadza tribe of Tanzania.
The Hadza people, who still live as hunter gatherers, were used as a model of the ancient human lifestyle. Members of the 1,000-strong population hunt animals and forage for berries, roots and fruit on foot, using bows, small axes, and digging sticks. They don’t use modern tools or guns.
The scientists found physical activity levels were much higher in the Hadza men and women, but when corrected for size and weight, their metabolic rate was no different to that of Westerners.
The study concluded that the main reason why Westerners are getting fat is because we eat too much, not because we exercise too little. Being active is important to your health but it won’t keep you thin, we need to eat less to do that.
Diet and Hypertension
The Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension is a set of dietary guidelines, which if followed, ensure that not only do we get all the nutrients we need, but also that we do not consume more calories than our bodies require. Importantly, this diet is high in fresh fruits and vegetables. It is low in saturated fats, refined sugar and sodium.
These guidelines can help us to lose weight, especially if we also take regular exercise.
2,400 years ago, Hippocrates said:
Our food should be our medicine. Our medicine should be our food.
For those of us with hypertension, it means we should think about what we are putting in your body, every single time we eat, and think about what that food, or non-food is going to do to our body. Will it help us or will it harm us? As the DASH diet and this research show, when it comes to losing weight to lower our high blood pressure, diet is the most important factor.
There is more information about the DASH diet in the High Blood Pressure Remedy Report.