Even though I'm a Registered Dietitian, eat a healthy balanced diet (most of the time) and make physical activity part of my daily routine, I am not immune to developing health problems. Because high blood pressure—also known as hypertension—runs in my family (both of my parents have it), I am at an increased risk of developing it. If I continue to take good care of myself by eating well and staying active, I may be able prevent hypertension, but if my blood pressure eventually does creep up, I will do my best to keep it well controlled. But in order to stay on top of things, I need to maintain a healthy lifestyle and that includes knowing my numbers.
What's scary about hypertension is that it often goes undiagnosed—the symptoms are usually unrecognizable. Even so, over 5 million Canadian adults have high blood pressure, nearly 1.3 million of which are females ages 20-64. Considering the fact that hypertension is the number one risk factor for stroke, and can put you in danger of developing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart disease, dementia and kidney disease (among other health problems), it's important to be pro-active and monitor your blood pressure regularly.
The truth is, regardless of your family history, gender or age, it's important to monitor your blood pressure regularly—even as a young mom.
Here are 5 ways you can keep your blood pressure (and health!) in check:
As a busy work-at-home mom of little ones, it's hard to remember to wash my hair, let alone keep track of my blood pressure. That is why I was thrilled to receive my very own Jobar Wristech Blood Pressure Monitor from Canada’s leading electronics-focused e-retailer Newegg at Home. Since receiving the monitor, it has made it much easier for me to keep track of my numbers.
What I love most about this monitor is that it has an adjustable strap that fits around my wrist like a watch (the wrist style eliminates uncomfortable pumping method you are used to), and I simply press a button and wait a few seconds to read my numbers on the large LCD screen. That's it!
I don't know about you, but I don't have time to make a pit stop at the public health clinic, my doctor's office, or the drug store to take my blood pressure once a day, or even once a month for that matter. That's why I love having my own blood pressure monitor—it's a quick and convenient way to stay on top of my blood pressure levels regularly. This monitor has the ability to store up to 60 readings so you can monitor and keep track of your health over time. If my numbers start to climb one day, I will recognize it and take the steps to control them right away.
Your blood pressure is measured with two numbers (e.g., 120/80 millimetres of mercury). The top number (e.g., 120) is what's known as your systolic blood pressure, which occurs when your heart contracts, and the bottom number (e.g., 80) is the diastolic blood pressure, which occurs when your heart relaxes and fills with blood. The higher your blood pressure numbers, and the longer they stay high, the more damage there is to your blood vessels.
Here is a great chart that I found on The Canadian Heart and Stroke website that outlines what is normal and what is not when it comes to blood pressure levels:
Canadians consume, on average, about 3400 mg of sodium (salt) per day—more than double what is needed. As adults, we only need between 1200-1500 mg of sodium per day, and no more than 2300 mg/day. This is the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of table salt. Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure. Any form of salt: kosher salt, sea salt, gourmet salt, fleur de sel, and smoked salt all have the same amount of sodium as table salt—there really isn't a "healthier" option. But using the salt shaker usually isn't the biggest problem—it's processed foods. Foods such as crackers, pretzels, potato chips, dips, sauces, ready-to-eat meals, deli meats, and even breakfast cereals are full of sodium. Eating out at restaurants and fast food joints often also increases your sodium consumption by a long shot.
Try to cook from scratch whenever possible. Use whole food ingredients such as fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, fresh meats and fish and meat alternatives (eggs, dried beans, lentils, nuts and seeds), whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Adding flavour to your home-cooked dishes using lemon, garlic, ginger, fresh or dried herbs, spices and vinegar is a great way to go, and if you focus on real ingredients, adding a little bit of salt here and there for added flavour, is fine too. It's almost impossible to avoid packaged, processed foods all together, so when you're looking at nutrition facts, look for products that contains less than 200 mg of sodium per serving.
Make sure to eat plenty of fresh or frozen fruits and veggies every day, as they contain essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants that keep you healthy and decrease your risk of chronic disease. Try to aim for at least four colours (or more) per day, including at least one serving at each meal and snack that you eat. I try to include fruit at breakfast and at a mid-morning snack, and vegetables at lunch and dinner as well as my afternoon snack (if I have one).
I enjoy a good glass of wine as much (or more) as the next person, but I also recognize that too much alcohol doesn't only add extra empty calories, but also increases my risk of developing high blood pressure over time. Women should limit themselves to no more than one standard drink per day (about 4 oz of wine, 1 bottle of beer or 1.5 oz of spirits) and men should limit themselves to no more than two standard drinks per day.
When it comes to preventing hypertension and keeping your numbers within a healthy range, besides monitoring your blood pressure regularly and eating healthfully, moving your body is absolutely key.
I'm not a huge fan of the word "exercise" because I often find that it is translated into "torture," which it's not supposed to be. Instead, just start moving your body in an enjoyable way. If you like to dance, sign up for a dance class. If you enjoy swimming, join a masters swim team at your local pool. If you enjoy going to the gym, buy a gym pass that has childcare so that you can take your kids. Or if you love walking, recruit a friend who can walk with you and keep you accountable. Regardless of the activity (or activities), make sure you enjoy doing it and that you can see yourself sticking with it. Aim for at least 30 minutes per day.
When I received an e-mail from my son's new preschool outlining their "no treat" snack policy (even for birthdays), my first thought was, "where's the fun?" followed quickly by, "and what, exactly, is considered a treat?" But what really got me was the teacher's list of healthy choices, which included cereal bars, pudding cups, fruit snacks, and pepperoni sticks. My son's preschool is missing the mark completely.
YMC's Irritated By Allergies blogger, Alexandria Durrell, had a similar experience with her son's school, where he was sent home with a note outlining a strict no treat policy for school lunches. If that doesn't seem unreasonable enough, another YMC'er mentioned that her niece's teacher threw out her bag of plain air-popped popcorn, because it was considered a "treat." I found this almost laughable, considering the fact that I put popcorn as one of my top 15 dietitian-approved lunch box staples.
While I completely understand schools wanting to promote good nutrition and healthy choices, I do take issue with schools and teachers taking on the role of "nutritionist" and dictating what parents are allowed to send in their kids' lunches.
Many schools are using Canada’s Food Guide or other public health resources as a guide for their school nutrition policies, which can mislead people into thinking that processed, packaged items are “healthy choices.” Just because a food fits into one of the four food groups, doesn't mean it's a healthy choice. For example, most store-bought cereal and granola bars contain between 11 and 22 grams of added sugar and have a long list of mostly unrecognizable ingredients. Yoplait yogurt tubes aren't much better with about 10 grams of sugar per tube (sugar is the second ingredient), and even worse are dried fruit snacks, which contain about 18 grams of sugar per serving (about 4.5 tsp). Unsweetened fruit juice contains the same amount of sugar as regular pop—about 21 grams or just over 5 tsp per 200 ml juice box. As a comparison, one mini-sized bakery cupcake has about 14 grams of sugar (3.5 tsp).
My point is, some of these so-called "healthy choices" are equivalent to dessert. Why not educate parents on how to make healthier baked goods from scratch, by using less sugar, or by adding whole grain flour, grated fruits or veggies or even beans and lentils to boost nutritional value? Or why not suggest making treat serving sizes smaller (mini cupcakes instead of large cupcakes for birthdays) and pairing treats with more healthful foods, such as milk or fresh fruit? When I posted about this on my facebook fan page, a Dietitian colleague suggested having a "fun food day" once a month instead of having cupcakes for every single birthday (which could be every week), which I thought was a great idea.
I also feel that there is a lot of value in teaching parents to include their kids in grocery shopping, preparing and packing their lunches and to send homemade items prepared with real, whole foods (versus processed, packaged foods) most of the time.
I'm a firm believer in Ellyn Satter's Division Of Responsibility Of Feeding, which teaches that parents are responsible for the whats, wheres, and whens of feeding, while kids are responsible for whether and how much they eat. In my mind, parents should ultimately decide what goes into their child's lunch. Aside from ensuring that each child has access to a safe and healthy eating environment, teachers and school staff should leave the feeding and eating up to parents and kids. To have teachers and school staff dictate what parents can and cannot send in their child's lunch or what kids can and cannot eat out of their lunch, in my mind, undermines the feeding relationship that has been established at home.
Teaching kids about healthy eating extends far beyond food choices. How we eat is just as important as what we eat, and we need to put more of an emphasis on this when teaching our kids about nutrition. We should teach kids that we eat a variety of different foods every day, that all foods can fit (more nourishing foods, as well as fun foods), and that they should try to "listen to their tummies" when deciding whether and how much to eat. In saying that, it's also important to teach kids that we sometimes eat for reasons that extend beyond just physical hunger, such as celebration (birthday party or holiday) or just because something tastes really yummy, and that that is ok.
School nutrition policies seem to be missing the mark, focusing too much on banning certain foods (eg. treats) and emphasizing how healthy and nutritious other foods are (eg.vegetables and fruits). Although there is value in teaching our kids about balance and nutrition, in my opinion, the focus needs to shift more towards helping kids develop a positive relationship with food, encouraging mindful eating, and exposing them to a variety of different foods everyday.
What do you think?
My Facebook page is a great resource for parents who are looking for advice on how to feed their family, easy and yummy recipes, and dealing with food battles. Please feel free to check it out!
If there's one food group that tends to be the source of family food battles, it's vegetables. Veggies, especially the nutritious green ones, are often bitter-tasting and therefore don't appeal to children as much as other foods. As parents though, we do whatever we can to get our kids to eat some vegetables every day (even just a few bites!) because we know the nutritional benefits they provide.
It's easy to get caught in a rut when it comes to family meals — especially the veggie portion. Because this food group tends to be a tough sell with kids, it's important to come up with some easy, creative, and yummy ways to serve them. Here are some ideas:
I find that some moms are hesitant to admit they use dips when serving vegetables, such as ketchup, ranch, Caesar, and even hummus. For some reason, "dipping" is often translated into "cheating."
I say "bring on the dips!"
You won't catch me munching on raw broccoli or cauliflower without some sort of dip, and you certainly won't see my kids eating them plain either. Let's be honest — they are boring and dry. Add some flavour and fun by serving two or three types of cut-up raw vegetables in different shapes and sizes, with two or three dips such as hummus, salsa, tzatziki, or ranch. If you have a wee one, try steaming (and then cooling) the vegetables first so they are a bit softer but still dippable.
Tip: I find it easiest to rinse and cut up veggies as soon as I get home from the grocery store or market. That way I can pull them out (along with dips) when my kids are getting hungry before dinner.
There are countless benefits to including your kids in meal-prep. Give your kids the job of "veggie picker" for the meal — let them choose which vegetables are included in the meal, and how they are cut (cubes, sticks, coins etc.).
Instead of asking your child which vegetable he wants tonight, ask him to choose three colors out of five, for example, "we have green cucumber, orange carrots, red peppers, green snap peas and red tomatoes. Which three would you like to include in our dinner?" That way, you're giving some structure, but this still gives him some power and control over what he is eating.
Let your kids also choose how they are served. Toddler and preschool-aged kids tend to be particular with how their food is served, for example, having their peas beside their macaroni and cheese as opposed to in their mac and cheese. And in many cases, once one food has come into contact with another, in your kids eyes, neither food is edible anymore, which can sometimes translate into a mealtime meltdown.
We have just started serving meals "family-style" and it's been fantastic. What it means, essentially, is placing all of the food that is being served for dinner on the table and allowing everyone to plate their own meals—including your kids. We usually remove most of the food after everyone serves themselves and place it on the counter, but leave the veggie dishes on the table.
Although my one-year-old daughter isn't old enough to partake quite yet, it's been great to see how my son's palate has evolved. The other night, he chose (with no pressure or prompting) vegetables that he has previously rejected for months and ate them all with some dip.
Plating their own meal, without pressure or prompting, gives kids a sense of control, which often translates into eating more and trying previously rejected foods.
Frozen vegetables are often overlooked because it is assumed they are less nutritious or of lower quality than fresh veggies.
In fact, frozen vegetables are often more nutrient-packed than store-bought fresh vegetables because they are flash frozen at peak ripeness, which is when they tend to be the most nutrient-packed. Although the first step to freezing vegetables is "blanching" them — exposing them to steaming hot water to kill bacteria and stop the action of food degrading enzymes, which can cause some of the water-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin C and B Vitamins to break down and leach out — the subsequent flash freezing of them essentially "locks" and preserves most of the vitamins and minerals, rendering a very nutrient-dense vegetable.
Tip: Frozen vegetables are a quick and easy option for busy weeknights. Our favourite frozen veggie by far is peas — they are the perfect finger food and both of my kids love them. I often add them in right before serving a hot dish like macaroni and cheese or a casserole, to not only boost nutrition, but cool the kids food down before they dig in!
Vegetables don't always have to be a side dish. They can be included in the main dish as a sauce, in a hearty casserole, in soups, in egg dishes and as part of main-dish salads.
An easy way to get extra veggies into everyone is with pasta sauces. Everyone loves pasta, and it can be a quick and easy meal to make. I often make classic spaghetti with lots of extra vegetables added to the sauce, but am always looking for new, healthy, and yummy pasta dishes to try out.
This Vegetable Medley Pasta was a hit with the whole family (my three-year-old even asked for seconds!) and I felt great about serving it because it was so nutritious — there was no need for a salad or raw veggies on the side, because the sauce was so jam-packed full of vegetables.
Vegetable Medley Pasta
1 tbsp (15 mL) olive oil
4 cups (1 L) finely chopped mixed vegetables (onion, celery, carrots, bell pepper, mushroom, zucchini)
1 can (156 mL) tomato paste
1 1/4 cups (300 mL) water
1/4 cup (50 mL) grated Romano or parmesan cheese
2 tbsp (30 mL) Club House Salt-Free Original One-Step Seasoning
In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Stir-fry vegetables until tender-crisp, 4-6 minutes.
Stir in tomato paste, water, cheese and seasoning. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve over pasta of your choice.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
We know how important it is for our kids to eat a balanced, healthy diet that includes vegetables. However, getting your kids to eat a variety of veggies is no easy task. Having some creative tricks and ideas, like the ones mentioned above, up your sleeve can take the pressure off of everybody and increase the chances of your kids not only trying previously rejected vegetables, but growing to love them.