My food history # 6 – critical moments … high blood pressure



Photo 5-8-18, 5 30 59 pm


By my late twenties, my red-meat-centred, full-fat dairy, white bread and sugar-treats diet of my childhood had changed. Food swaps after my father’s heart attack meant more chicken and less red-meat, skim milk instead of full-fat milk, oil instead of butter, and fatty foods only eaten socially. I also restricted sugar, confectionery and chocolate. I based my diet around foods high in fibre with wholemeal breads, added bran, and fruit. Thus in the early 1980s, when I started out on motherhood, I had preconceived high ideals on a healthy diet for myself and healthy foods for my children. I believed if I fed my children mainly wholegrain cereals, vegetables and fruit; if I avoided excess fats, salt, sugar and refined cereals; then good health and well-being would naturally follow.

How wrong I was.

My second son was a failure to thrive, suffering chronic diarrhoea and repeated wheezy chest colds from the introduction of solid food. Referred to a paediatrician at 15 months, a series of tests ruled out sinister problems, and he was diagnosed with food allergies. He initially improved on a restrictive diet excluding milk, eggs and wheat. However, he had frequent relapses and it would be another two years before I had the complete answer for him. Needless to say, this was an emotionally distressing time as I battled sleepless nights, guilt-choked days and a socially-crippling diet.

Attributing my emerging headaches to lack of sleep, eventually they became too intense to ignore and I sought medical care. The first reading of my blood pressure was 160 systolic, 100 diastolic. Later readings were as high as 170/110. I plunged into a sense of panic. Less than ten years before I had lost my father from a stroke. His mother too had died at a relatively young age from a stroke. As a pharmacist, I knew what this meant … I was a walking time-bomb.

I became despairing that I could be presenting with high blood pressure. I ate what I thought was a healthy diet. How could this happen? I concluded coffee must be the culprit as I had been having multiple cups a day to lift my energy levels. So I stopped drinking coffee. I remember the date – 9th December 1983 – I have never had any coffee since. (Except one cup on one occasion to test the effect and within an hour was crawling up the wall with anxiety). To be honest, I do not know if coffee contributed to the rise in my blood pressure. It was just something I clung onto at the time.

As I was so young, the doctor sent me off for a battery of tests to rule out any unusual cause for my hypertension. The tests came back negative and he put me on medication.  My blood pressure dropped. After six months I weaned off the medication and it soared again. The doctor told me due to my father’s history and that of his mother, I would need to go on medication for life. When I refused, he sent me to a specialist.

In the weeks before my appointment, I put myself on a Pritikin-style diet which is low in fat, sugar, salt and refined cereals (2). The Pritikin diet restricted all types of fat, not just saturated fat, and was low in meat although did allow some. At the time, the diet was considered somewhat fringe and unnecessarily restrictive. To me, it seemed a better alternative than lifelong medication (if it worked). My main focus was strict exclusion of salt (or sodium), the food component attributed to raising blood pressure.

By the time of my specialist appointment came round my blood pressure had reduced.  I had been given a reprieve. I bought myself a home sphygomomanometre to track my blood pressure and have been fairly diligent at monitoring it closely. In the years since, I have required two further periods of medication of about three months each (both at times when I took my eye off the prize) but on the whole have managed to control my blood pressure through diet and lifestyle. I am aged 64 years and remain medication-free. The readings of my blood pressure average about 110/70 and sometimes lower.

As a disclaimer, I note that not everyone can control their blood pressure by diet as I did. As high blood pressure is a key risk factor for heart disease, stroke and can be a contributing factor in Type 2 diabetes, it is important it is treated. Anyone should seek advice from their own doctor on treatment for high blood pressure, if it occurs.

I followed the Pritikin diet more-or-less for about ten years. During that time I also dropped unnecessary vitamin and mineral supplements, believing if having a healthy diet, supplementation was unnecessary. When I improved on the diet, I was convinced it was extreme restriction of salt (sodium) that had worked for me, just as the research claimed. It was that food component (sodium) that was responsible for my rise in blood pressure …

or was it?

This is a series of posts on my food history from my childhood up until 2013.

This is a series of posts on my food history from my childhood up until 2013.
My food history # 1 – My childhood diet – Late 1950s, early 1960s
My food history # 2 – Mid 1960s – First nutrition lessons
My food history # 3 – Late 1960s – Times are a-changing
My food history # 4 – Critical moments – my father
My food history # 5 – Fit 1970s – fibre – fruit – free of sugar
My food history # 6 – 1980s – Critical moments – a health scare – hypertension
My food history # 7 (part 1) – 1980s – Food Sensitivities – shattered ideals of healthy food
My food history # 7 (part 2) – 1980s – Food sensitivities – proving the culprit foods
My food history # 7 (part 3) – 1980s – Food sensitivities – hypertension & biogenic amines
My food history # 8 – The 1980s Healthy Eating Pyramid
My food history # 9 – The 1990s Nutrition studies – low GI – lipoproteins
My food history # 10 – 1990s combining ‘friendly’ with ‘healthy’ – a bland yet healthy diet
My food history # 11 – The 2000s – slow ticking time bombs
My food history # 12 – Critical events and life catastrophes

Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or on this website should be taken as medical or dietary advice. Anyone reading any information provided within should seek advice from their own medical practitioner for any issue, disease, illness or health-related problem they may have. Always seek your own advice from a medical practitioner or dietitian before changing your own diet.


References and Notes:
(1) Image: Leonie Elizabeth. 06 August 2018.

(2) The Pritikin Diet: When diagnosed with heart disease, Nathan Pritikin had explored the research and created a diet based on unrefined carbohydrates and low in fat, sugar and salt. It allowed skim milk and small amounts of meat.

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