Blood Pressure

High blood pressure was the number one risk factor for death in the world in 2016, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the United States, high blood pressure affected nearly 17 million people, or one in three adults, according to a high blood pressure study from the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted in 2014.

As aging progresses, the risk for high blood pressure increases. It’s inevitable­–or is it?

In a study observing blood pressures of African natives, researchers measured the blood pressure of 1,000 people in rural Kenya, where their diets consisted of whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and dark leafy greens. The research showed that, while pressures tend to increase as we age, their pressures surprisingly dropped.

As we all are aware, the lower the blood pressure, the better. The 140/90 cutoff you have likely heard of is considered subjective. Over the course of two years, 1,800 patients were admitted to a rural Kenyan hospital. There were absolutely no cases of high blood pressure found among the hospital patients. The same was found in rural China, as people live their entire lives at about 110/70.

Traditional diets in Asian and African countries are vastly different; however, they do share some common ground, as they both were normally plant-based diets, only eating meat on special occasions. Does this mean a plant-based diet works best? As the American Heart Association has pointed out, the only people who were able to get their blood pressure levels that low were on a strictly plant-based diet.

The largest study to date followed plant-based diets of 89,000 Californians in 2014. Non-vegetarians were compared to semi-vegetarians (or flexitarians, those who eat meat on a weekly basis rather than daily), pescatarians (those who eat no meat except fish), lacto-ovo-vegetarians (those who eat no meat at all), and vegans (who eat no animal products).

The subjects of the study were Seventh-Day Adventists, who tend to consume lots of fruits and vegetables, exercise, and do not smoke, and even the non-vegetarians hardly eat meat. When compared to a group of relatively healthy meat-eaters, there appeared to be a steep drop in hypertension rates as people ate more and more plant-based diets. Vegans were found to have lower rates of hypertension than lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who had lower rates than pescatarians.

So yes, there is a way to keep hypertension at bay by sticking to a plant-based diet or cutting back on the foods that cause blood pressure to rise. You might think the American Heart Association would recommend giving up meant entirely, right? Not at all. The AHA recommends a low-meat diet, known as Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or the DASH diet.

The DASH diet, created by Harvard’s Frank Sacks, the chair of the Design Committee, designed the diet to include the benefits of a plant-based diet but also enough animal products to make it palatable to the general population.

Related: Lower Your Blood Pressure with These 19 Healthy Foods

So by keeping a watchful eye on your meat consumption, you can significantly reduce the risk of hypertension. Moderation is key, but in the long run, it can pay to skip that double cheeseburger or steak.

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