Dr. Beth Piraino was more accustomed to treating patients than being one. But that changed four years after she checked her blood pressure and realized she was in trouble.

“It was 180/110 — really high,” said Piraino, 65, a nephrologist based in Pittsburgh who is president of the National Kidney Foundation.

One out of three Americans has high blood pressure, putting them at risk for heart disease, stroke and even kidney disease. “Both of my parents had high blood pressure and my mother experienced heart failure, so I definitely had the genetics,” said Piraino, 65. “I realized I was a doctor who was about to become a patient.”

But Piraino knew her family tree didn’t doom her to high blood pressure, which is often called the “silent killer” because it has no symptoms. Before turning to medication, she tackled her diet.

“I salted my food and loved salty dishes, but that had to go,” she said. “I also started reading food labels at the grocery store to check the sodium. A lot of processed food tends to be very high in salt.”

Piraino’s goal was to eat 1,500 calories a day and drastically cut her salt. She started eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, and nonfat, low-sodium dairy products, particularly yogurt.  She cooked at home more, and instead of salting her food, she used other seasonings and spices. Her blood pressure dropped to 130/80 within a few weeks.

Piraino began taking 25 mg daily of Losartan, a blood pressure medication, and her levels dropped to 114/75. She also lost weight and now has a normal body mass index.

Patient to patient
Piraino says living with high blood pressure has made her a better doctor and has changed how she connects with her patients about diet and living a healthy lifestyle.

“I can speak from experience. I tell them this isn’t a no-sodium diet, but a low-sodium, and I tell them food actually tastes better,” she said. “The excessive use of salt covers up the true tastes of the food. It’s like we’re addicted to sodium.”

Piraino would like to see nutrition education better integrated into everyday medicine. “Physicians need to reinforce the importance of diet at every visit with every patient,” Piraino said. “I believe in changing the lifestyle first before medication because so much can be accomplished when committing to the way we live and eat.”