It is no secret that the western world is in a heart health crisis, with more than 100 million Americans reportedly suffering from hypertension. One of the main contributing factors to this epidemic is a diet high in processed foods, animal products, and saturated fats.
A great percentage of individuals with high blood pressure turn to doctors who then prescribe them medicine to treat their ailment. The problem here is that medicine, even though effective, doesn’t deal with the root of the problem, but only its symptoms. It regulates a person’s blood pressure synthetically while allowing them to continue with their bad eating habits.
On the other side of the dietary spectrum, researchers have noticed that vegans/vegetarians do not face this problem (generally speaking). This realization has caught the attention of many medical professionals who have conducted plenty of studies in recent years, and their results are pleasantly surprising.
So, in this article we are going to discuss the relation of a plant-based diet and blood pressure, and whether it provides a solution to the modern man’s blood pressure problems.
Vegetarian diets lower high blood pressure
A study done by The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA), followed around 5000 young men and women (aged 18 to 30), over a 15 year period. During this time, the individuals occasionally measured their pressure with a blood pressure monitor and the scientists collected and analyzed the data.
The study concluded that as a person increased the intake of red and processed meat, their blood pressure elevated. On the other hand, those who got most of their calories from whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and dairy, showed the opposite trend.
Another famous meta-analysis which included 32 observational studies reached the same conclusions. Diets which do not include, or strictly limit meat consumption showed a decrease in blood pressure, about 50% as effective as drugs.
This analysis, however, isn’t perfect as it relies on observational studies, which means that it analyses the data from a person’s dietary history. No direct measurements were ever done so there was no concrete evidence to inspect.
One additional issue is that major lifestyle factors such as alcohol and exercise were not taken into account, and they can have a profound impact on hypertension.
Are strict vegetarian diets optimal for blood pressure regulation?
It is important to mention that meat seems to be the main culprit in the previously mentioned studies, because egg, dairy, and even fish consumption along with whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, showed much more positive results. So this leaves us with the question whether strict vegetarian (vegan) diets are the ideal option for regulating blood pressure?
The data on this is still unclear for some of the following reasons.
Firstly, nobody is talking about what effect the quality of the meat has on one’s health, and this is a significant factor. To clarify, industry farmed animals are confined in small spaces, fed with pesticide ridden grains and pumped with antibiotics and hormones; pasture-raised animals are left to roam freely and eat grass.
Common sense tells us that the meat from these two kinds of animals has to be different, and research has concluded that grass-fed beef is higher in vitamins and minerals, as well as omega-3 fatty acids than the industry produced one.
Secondly, low-meat diets are seldom (or never) compared to no-meat diets so we cannot draw any conclusions. It is hard to say whether people who eat small-to-moderate amounts of quality meat would suffer from hypertension.
Lastly, strict vegan diets have been linked with vitamin B12 as well as sulfur amino acid deficiency, and both factors increase the risk of heart disease. So far, the only bio reliable sources of these nutrients have been found exclusively in animal products, so their consumption is necessary for optimal health.
Of course, B12 supplementation is another viable option for vegans.
Eating too much protein is a problem
Many of the world’s dietary experts claim that the adequate amount of protein is half a gram per pound of lean body mass.
So, for example, if an individual weighs 200 pounds, 20% of which is fat, that leaves them with 160 pounds of lean body mass. Divide this by two, and you get 80 grams of protein per day for this particular person. This would be the high end of the protein amount so 10-20 grams less is also acceptable.
This calculation is intended mostly for men, as their bodies are naturally leaner than women’s, which means that the latter can easily consume about 30% less protein and remain perfectly healthy. Exceptions are made in cases of pregnancy and hard physical exercise, where the amount should be increased for about 20-25%.
In the modern-day west, especially in North America, it is not uncommon for a man to consume twice or even three times the recommended protein amount. Considering that most of the meat eaten comes from industry raised animals, it is no wonder that there are so many diet-related illnesses nowadays.
If we eat more protein than we can digest, our body converts most of its calories to sugar. Besides, nitrogen waste products have to be removed from the system as well, which puts a strain on our kidneys.
Increased protein intake has also been linked to cancer growth, so this is another reason why you need to pay attention to it.
As is usually the case when discussing two opposing sides – the truth is somewhere in the middle. Regarding diet, we believe that finding a middle ground between carnivorous habits and strict plant eating is needed for good health.
Yes, vegetarian and vegan diets show superior results when it comes to healthy blood pressure, but they are not without faults. Therefore, our final advice would be to focus on whole foods, mostly plants (organic if possible) with low amounts of high-quality, pasture raised meats.
Moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, and fish, are also tolerable, and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, and avocados should regularly be eaten.
The diet, while extremely important, is only a part of a truly healthy lifestyle. Please do not forget to include some kind of exercise into your daily routine and try to manage stress levels as much as possible. A combination of these elements is the essence of well-being, so make sure to pay attention to all of them.