If you have been told that your blood pressure is high or borderline high, your doctor would have probably told you to avoid salty foods, start getting more physically active or to lose some weight if you are overweight.
Our bodies need only a small amount of sodium to function normally. Most Singaporeans consume almost double the recommended sodium (salt) intake and we get much of it from eating out, condiments and processed foods. This puts us at higher risk of heart attack, stroke and other heart conditions.
Therefore, it’s important understand the food labels so you can gauge how much sodium (along with calories and other nutrients) you are consuming from these packaged foods.
Food labels tell you what is in the food and drinks you are consuming. Every packaged and processed product should have a food label to help you determine its nutrition content. The food labels can help you sieve through misleading claims, shop faster and make better food choices to lower your blood pressure levels. Nowadays, some restaurants have nutrition information available on their menus as well.
Ignore marketing claims
Many people base their purchase on the claims manufacturers print on their packaging. Did you know that many of these “low-fat” and ‘lite’ products can be high in fat, sugar, calories and salt, and these in excess can lead to hunger, weight gain and disease? “100% natural” can also contain a lot of sugar, salt and fat – all of which are natural ingredients.
Claims stated by the manufacturers often don’t tell you the whole story. In fact, these health and nutrient can be nutritionally meaningless and misleading.
Never evaluate a product based on the claims on the packaging, and never on a single nutrient or by calories alone.
Always choose minimally-processed foods when possible
The general recommendations for sodium intake is 2,000 mg a day; this is about a teaspoon of salt. And if you have high or borderline high blood pressure, the recommended limit is 1,500 mg of sodium a day. However, even if your blood pressure is normal, it is important to be mindful of your salt intake as high Sodium intake has been linked to higher Calcium losses from your bone.
Lowering sodium intake is one way to help you lower blood pressure and improve heart health.
Much salt (and sugar!) is added to foods during stages of processing them as salt enhances flavour, masks unpleasant chemicals added, preserves freshness, as well as improves texture and appearance.
For instance, choosing minimally processed foods whenever possible means cooking pasta with sauce from scratch, instead of buying instant pasta or using ready-made sauce. Add salt-free herbs and spices to flavour cooking instead of salt.
Read the nutrition information panel
1. Check serving size and number of servings per package
Using the above nutrition information panel as an example. The Per Serving column tells you how much nutrients you will get in the amount determined by the manufacturer.
Some suggested serving size can be smaller than what people can have under normal circumstances, so pay attention to the serving size and number of servings in that package, and compare it to how much you’re actually eating. Does the amount of food reflect the quantity you would usually have?
To easily compare information across 2 or more products, use the Per 100g column, which tells you how much nutrients you will get in 100 grams of the product.
2. Choose Products Lower in Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, and Sodium
Look out for these nutrients concerning blood pressure and heart health. Excessive fat and calories in the diet can contribute to weight gain and raise the risk of developing high blood pressure. When shopping for food, use the nutrition information panel to compare and choose products with lower fat, saturated fat and Sodium content.
Use the same reference amount (e.g. sodium content per 100g) when comparing products. Choose products with lower Sodium, saturated fat and trans fat more often.
Some prepackaged foods are high in sodium – e.g. chips, ham, salted nuts. Others are high in saturated fat – e.g. cured meats, sausages; and trans fat (e.g. pastry, margarine). Both saturated and trans fat increase bad cholesterol in blood, while trans fat also reduces the good cholesterol.
The goal is to choose foods that are lower in these nutrients, and ideally 0 grams of trans fat.
3. Look out for Healthier Choice Symbols
To simply and quickly identify healthier products, look out for the Healthier Choice Symbols below.
Products with the Healthier Choice Symbol has met the nutritional standards set by the Health Promotion Board. These triangular symbols are regulated and awarded to manufacturers whose products meet certain requirements.
Keep in mind that products with Healthier Choice Symbols are shopping guides to healthier products, and should still be eaten moderately.
For instance, products with Lower in Sodium symbol contains 25% less Sodium compared to its regular products. This means that consuming large amounts of these means a high Sodium intake, so make sure you pay attention to the ingredient list!
Products with this symbol can be found in products such as nuts, sauces, canned products, recipe mixes and paste.
Always check the ingredient list
The ingredient list shows the ingredients used in largest the smallest amount by weight.
Claims can be sneaky, but the ingredient list will list out the true contents of what is actually in the food or drink product.
Sugar is not always listed as ‘sugar’ in the ingredients. Names such as high fructose corn syrup, glucose, sucrose, maltose, honey, syrup and hydrolysed starch are examples of types of sugar. The higher up on the ingredient list, the higher the amounts of added sugar is in the product.
Choose products with higher dietary fibre and wholegrains
Whether you are trying to lose weight or lower your blood pressure, dietary fibre is your best friend. Eating a diet high in dietary fibre comes with numerous health benefits, including regulating your digestive system, lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol, stabilising blood sugar levels, and reducing your calorie intake.
Focusing on wholegrains will give you more fibre and nutrients than refined grains (such as white bread, white rice, products made from regular wheat flour).
A low-salt diet including wholegrains such as brown rice, wholemeal bread and oats, as well as nuts, seeds, mushrooms, beans in canned or dried forms, and fruits and vegetables whether in frozen or canned forms in your diet will help to lower blood pressure levels.
These foods are naturally low in sodium and are good sources of potassium, magnesium minerals which help to excrete excess sodium from the body. These foods are also rich in phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals working together in our body to reduce our risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases.
Many products, such as the one above, claim to be wholegrain or wholemeal but the first ingredient in the list is often wheat flour, which is actually refined flour. Check that WHOLE grains, WHOLE wheat, wholemeal are the first or second ingredient listed for the real wholegrain deal. Unbleached flour, enriched high protein wheat flour are all refined flours.
That said, note that Healthier Choice Symbol with ‘higher in wholegrains’ claim may be awarded to this product as it does contain 20% more wholegrain than the regular version of a similar product. This is why checking the ingredient list is so important – don’t be tricked by product name or claims!
The bottom line is, the Healthier Choice Symbol helps you to pick healthier products at a glance. There’s a reason why it’s not called the “Healthy Choice Symbol”.
Look for credible source and personalised guidance to help you
It can be quite overwhelming to sieve out credible information and distinguish them among the good-will advice from family and friends. I hope the article has broken down and explain these features so they make sense to you.
If you want further information or need more tailored guidance to lower your blood pressure naturally and improve your health, our friendly dietitians and health coach at MyDoc can help you navigate your way to better health and quality of life. Find us here.