Fight Hypertension with Plants!
Did you know that you can fight your risk of high blood pressure (hypertension)—a life-threatening condition—with a plant-based diet? That’s right! So, I’m answering all of your questions on why you need to keep your blood pressure in check, and how to do it with your diet.
There are so many benefits to boosting your diet with more plants. A long list of health conditions are linked to a poor diet. In fact, a study revealed that over 70% of deaths in 2015 were caused by dietary and lifestyle choices! Eating a plant-based diet is not only easy and delicious, it can also help fight off many common health conditions, such as high blood pressure. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a leading cause of death worldwide, and is second only to cigarette smoking as a preventable risk factor for death in the United States. Nearly 30% of Americans are living with hypertension, with the majority of cases developing over time due to a poor diet, excessive stress, and sedentary behavior. Following a healthy plant-based diet, full of fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fat, is a proven way to prevent and manage hypertension.
What is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is measured using two numbers: systolic and diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure, the first number you see in a blood pressure reading, represents the peak pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats. The second number in the reading represents diastolic pressure, or the minimum pressure in your blood vessels when your heart is resting between beats. Blood pressure is expressed in millimeters of mercury (mmHg), and a normal blood pressure is classified as less than 120/80. A systolic blood pressure of 120-129 is considered elevated, and a systolic blood pressure more than 130 or diastolic blood pressure of more than 80 is called hypertension, a disease that carries serious health consequences. Check out this chart below from the American Heart Association to help understand your blood pressure readings.
Why is it Important to Manage Blood Pressure?
The healthy cutoff of 120/80 was determined by calculating the level where blood pressure-related risk of death from heart attack and stroke is close to zero. With increasing blood pressure, you increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, chronic kidney disease, and other serious medical conditions. There are often no symptoms related to hypertension, so it is important to monitor your blood pressure consistently.
How Can I Manage my Blood Pressure with Diet?
People who follow a plant-based diet typically have lower blood pressure levels than those who consume animal products. The evidence for this is strong, a review of 39 studies, published in JAMA International Medicine, found that vegetarian diets were associated with lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, when compared to typical omnivorous diets.
One common dietary strategy recommended to help control blood pressure is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, more commonly known as the DASH diet. This diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, and includes whole grains, legumes, and nuts. The diet recommends reducing your consumption of red meat and other products high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Though the DASH diet is not exclusively vegetarian or vegan, it is easy to follow with a whole food, plant-based diet. The DASH study showed that in subjects with hypertension, the diet produced a reduction in blood pressure comparable to that observed with blood pressure-reducing medication. The DASH diet showed an even greater decrease in blood pressure when followed in conjunction with a reduced sodium intake.
Do Plant-Based Diets Really Help Prevent Hypertension?
The scientific evidence for the effect of a plant-based diet is everywhere. The first study to establish the power of a plant-based diet to lower blood pressure was the Adventist health Study-2, which found that vegans and vegetarians had significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels, as well as lower odds of hypertension, compared to non-vegetarians. These findings have been replicated in several similar studies. According to a study published in The Journal of Hypertension, vegetarian diets can protect against high blood pressure. In the group of over 4,000 participants, those who followed a vegetarian diet demonstrated a 34% lower risk of hypertension compared to omnivores.
Why Does a Plant-Based Diet Help Stop Hypertension?
Healthy plant-based diets are naturally low in saturated fat and cholesterol, compounds that can raise blood cholesterol and put you at an even higher risk for heart attack and stroke. Plant foods are also low in sodium and high in potassium. High sodium levels are directly linked to increased blood pressure, as are low potassium levels. Some delicious plant foods that are naturally low in sodium and high in potassium include lentils, squash, raisins, oranges, bananas, potatoes, and spinach.
A healthy plant-based diet is also full of fiber. Fiber is a powerhouse nutrient that works to reduce both blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, both of which are risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains are packed with fiber and can help you control your blood pressure.
How Can I Adopt a Plant-Based Diet to Prevent Hypertension?
Focus on whole foods! Base your meals around vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, and incorporate healthy fats such as nuts, seeds and oils. The DASH diet recommends 6-8 servings of grains per day, 4-5 servings of fruit per day, 4-5 servings of vegetables per day, and 4-5 servings of nuts, seeds and legumes per week. Try to limit your sodium intake to less than 2300 mg a day by avoiding processed foods that are often high in sodium and low in fiber. Read labels carefully to avoid consuming products that may contain hidden sodium.
Here are some of my favorite recipes that are packed with fiber and potassium; I promise you won’t miss the salt!
Written by Ally Mirin, Dietetic Intern with Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN on December 8, 2019.