The Western lifestyle—diet, low physical activity levels and stress—contributes to a wide variety of chronic diseases and conditions in Americans. These conditions collectively afflict 65% of the adult population in the U.S., while they are rare in cultures that have been isolated from exposure to a western lifestyle.
In fact, as traditional societies begin to adopt western foods and lifestyles, their incidences of chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity and osteoporosis rose dramatically.
An example of this is found in the Canadian Inuit of Nunavik, Quebec. In September of 2009, Dr. Marie-Ludivine Chateau-Degat told the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress that the recent reach of Western foods has severely impacted the health of the natives.
The traditional Inuit diet had consisted of fish, seafood, caribou, wild fowl and other marine mammal meat before 1992. The consumption of such a diet included physical labor and activity, the pooling of communal resources, social activities centered around the collective good and social ties, and a diet rich in unprocessed foods, sea salt and other nutrients.
By 2004, store-bought foods had mostly replaced the native diet. 95% of the sodium the Intuits’ now ingest comes from processed foods in the form of highly processed, iodized salt. The majority of carbohydrates they ingest come in the form of sugary drinks. Intake of dietary fiber and essential vitamins and minerals has plummeted, while hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and obesity have soared in the population.
Most Americans don’t even realize they have high blood pressure until serious problems arise.
Blood pressure is a combination of systolic and diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure represents blood force or pressure while the heart is beating and diastolic pressure stands for blood pressure when the heart is at rest.
Systolic pressure is always the first or top measurement in a blood pressure reading. In a reading of 140/90, 140 represents systolic pressure and 90 represents diastolic pressure. In prehypertension, systolic numbers range from 120-139 and diastolic numbers range from 80-89. Stage 1 hypertension numbers vary from 140-159 for systolic values and 90-99 in diastolic numbers. With Stage 2 hypertension, systolic readings are 160 or higher and diastolic readings measure 100 or higher. Although both numbers are significant, after about age 50, the systolic number is most important. Only 10% of high blood pressure cases are due to secondary or identifiable causes such as medications or conditions and diseases of other organs.
You can monitor your own blood pressure by measuring your pulse rate. Giving yourself 10 minutes to ensure that you get a resting reading rate, find your pulse on the thumb-side of your wrist (just next to the most prominent bone) or place 2 fingers (but not the thumb) alongside your throat (to either side and above the Adam’s apple.)
While watching the seconds tick on a clock, count the number of beats you feel for 30 seconds. Double this figure to get your resting heart rate. Alternately, you can count the beats for just 10 seconds and multiply the number by 6.
This number varies with time of day, activity, age and emotional status but 60-80 beats per minute is the average adult resting heart rate. Athletes generally have lower numbers. A resting heart rate that is over 90 can signify a problem.
Results of high blood pressure include:
- Arterial damage
- Heart failure
- Blocked or ruptured blood vessels
- Reduced kidney function
- Vision loss
- Loss of cognitive function: concentration, memory and ability to learn
- Metabolic syndrome: a cluster of metabolic disorders such as high cholesterol and insulin, artherosclerosis and increased waist size
Avoid These Like the Plague
Got high fructose corn syrup? If you eat any packaged foods or sodas, most likely you do, and you’re also more likely to develop hypertension (among other problems) because of it. Americans consume 30% more sugar than they did just 20 years ago and 4 times as much as they did 100 years ago, before the advent of highly processed foods. The obesity rates then were less than 5%, while today 64.5% of American adults are overweight and 30.5% are obese.
Researchers studied 4,528 adults that had no prior history of hypertension. Those who ingested more than 74 grams of added sugar (about the amount in 2 ½ sugary drinks) daily, led to 28%, 36% and 87% increased risk in high blood pressure readings over time. The percentages correspond to blood pressure readings of 135/85, 140/90 and 160/100.
Another study has looked at American sodium intake. Highly refined salt exists in large amounts in processed foods. The study predicted that reducing sodium intake could eliminate 11 million cases of high blood pressure and save the U.S. $32 billion annually.
Research estimates that more than 77% of America’s sodium intake comes in the form of processed foods rather than salt added to foods while cooking or eating at home. Fast food, another fixture of the western lifestyle, is loaded with sodium. Replace all processed and refined salt with natural sea salt.
Potassium is a compound that seems to protect people from the development of hypertension. Supplements of potassium don’t work well according to research, but foods that contain them do.
Spinach: Spinach is rich in magnesium and folate which can help prevent high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Sunflower Seeds: Rich in potassium, magnesium and healthy plant fats, sunflower seeds can help reduce cholesterol levels, opening up blood vessels and promoting healthy blood pressure.
Bananas: Bananas contain loads of potassium and fiber.
Healthy Fats: Oily, cold-water fish provides omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy balancing technique to the overload of omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids that are overly prevalent in processed foods, fast and convenient foods and much of the western diet.
Garlic: Research on the health benefits of garlic is finding more and more miraculous effects. Among them, garlic seems to help thin the blood, prevent the blockage in blood vessels, and so lower blood pressure.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes are loaded with calcium, potassium, vitamins A, C and E and lycopene. Compounds in tomatoes can lower cholesterol buildup in blood vessels and combat the development of hypertension in a variety of ways. Lycopene, one of the tomato’s most useful compounds, is activated by heat, so add tomatoes to your next chili or stew.
Broccoli: Broccoli has been found to have a whole host of beneficial health effects including high amounts of potassium and chromium that help regulate blood sugar levels and weight, both related to high blood pressure.
Melon: Melon is rich in potassium. Cantaloupe and watermelon are especially rich sources.
Regular exercise and diet play a large role in the development (or not) of hypertension. One of the most detrimental components of the western lifestyle is stress. Managing stress includes relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, journaling or art therapy.
You can raise your blood pressure to alarming levels just by thinking or stressing about events. Imagined events have as much physiological effect as real ones. This is the basis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the improvement of performance in businessmen and Olympic athletic gains with visualization.
The western lifestyle might include career and lifestyle choices that incite chronic disease but that doesn’t mean that you have to proscribe to them. Going against a cultural current takes strength, but the failure of our cultural norm has contributed to the splintering of its route and the availability of alternate paths.
The fight for a culture’s health depends less on science that focuses on finding magical cures in drugs, and more on making fundamental shifts in food production, availability, our connections to food, our work life and stress factors, and re-prioritizing values. The best preventative measure? A healthy lifestyle. It’s common sense, really. With this article and the others on this site, you are now equipped to truly maximize your health.