When visiting the doctor for an annual exam, one of the first things the nurse practitioner or doctor will do is strap a large black band around your arm, pump it full of air, and slowly release the air while taking a reading. This is how your doctor can check the health of your blood pressure and it happens to be one of the most important indicators of overall health.
Not only is high blood pressure an indicator of future health issues — including eye damage, heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, and blood vessel damage (also called atherosclerosis) — but it can also be a red flag regarding lifestyle and diet choices that may need to be changed.
Lifestyle, physical activity, and diet play major roles in the development and treatment of high blood pressure. Specifically, when it comes to diet, it’s been discovered that switching to a plant-based, whole-foods diet is a great way to manage and lower high blood pressure.
Interested? Read further to learn why plant-based foods affect blood pressure and how to change your diet to help manage healthy blood pressure levels.
We also highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App on iTunes — with over 15,000 delicious recipes it is the largest meatless, vegan and allergy-friendly recipe resource to help you get healthy!
With that said, always make sure to speak with your healthcare professional before making any changes!
High blood pressure — also referred to as hypertension — “is when your blood pressure, the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels, is consistently too high.” What exactly is blood pressure? The human body pumps oxygenated blood to your tissues and organs by way of your heart beating. Each time your heart beats, “it creates pressure that pushes blood through a network of tube-shaped blood vessels, which include arteries, veins, and capillaries” and this pressure — called blood pressure — is what the nurse practitioner is monitoring during that annual checkup.
When blood pressure is consistently high, it will begin to cause harm to the body by “increasing the workload of the heart and blood vessels.” If left untreated over time, the “force and friction of high blood pressure damages the delicate tissues inside the arteries,” and can lead to plaque buildup of unhealthy (LDL) cholesterol. This is the beginning of atherosclerosis and it can lead to “conditions ranging from arrhythmia to heart attack and stroke.”
The Connection Between High Blood Pressure and Cognitive Decline
Researchers have always concluded that high blood pressure may have an effect on the rate and voraciousness of cognitive decline as we age, yet a recent observational study by the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS) has found some of the most prolific evidence connecting these two conditions.
Researchers “analyzed data collected from nearly 11,000 adults” who had enrolled in the study, which looked “to find out if high blood pressure — and whether the person with it was treating it — affects a person’s memory, language, and thinking skills.” The data illuminated two separate trends: firstly, “that people over age 55 with high blood pressure lost their mental abilities more quickly than those who didn’t,” and secondly, “that people who were treating their condition had the same rate of cognitive decline as those without high blood pressure.” Basically, those with high blood pressure who weren’t treating it had a higher rate of cognitive decline than those treating high blood pressure or those without high blood pressure.
This is not the only study to find a connection between high blood pressure and cognitive decline. In fact, various studies in the Western world have found a connection between these two conditions. For instance, a 2016 observational study published by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) found that “having high blood pressure in midlife— the 40s to early 60s — increases the risk of cognitive decline later in life.”
Why are they connected?
It all comes down to blood vessels and, in particular, brain blood vessels. The human body encompasses a “vast network of blood vessels [that] carries oxygen, glucose, and other nutrients to brain cells, providing the energy the brain needs to function properly.” The brain alone “receives 20 percent of the body’s blood supply,” and therefore, it deems logical that if the blood flow to the brain is “reduce or blocked” it could harm the brain itself. High blood pressure that is uncontrolled “plays a part in this damage” causing “blood vessels to become scarred, narrowed, and diseased.”
How Plant-Based Foods Can Lower High Blood Pressure
Along with research regarding the connection between high blood pressure and cognitive decline, researchers have also looked into ways to reduce the risk of high blood pressure via lifestyle, diet, and exercise. In particular, an extensive medical report — researched, written, and compiled between four medical professions from Rush University Medical Center, Montefiore Medical Center, and the Department of Nutrition & Food Studies at New York University — outlined the connection between healthy blood pressure and both diet and exercise:
“First line therapies for all stages of hypertension include exercise and weight loss. However, results from one small cross-sectional study suggest that a plant-based diet is the more important intervention. This study compared the blood pressure of sedentary vegans, endurance athletes (matched for body mass index with the vegan group) consuming a Western diet and running an average of 48 miles per week, and sedentary subjects consuming a Western diet. Blood pressure was significantly lower in the vegan group.”
On top of that, the American Heart Association promotes the blood pressure benefits of a plant-based diet, while also outlining the overall health benefits including decreased risk of “heart disease, stroke, obesity, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and even many cancers.”
How do plants lower high blood pressure?
Researchers attribute these benefits to a “decrease in consumption of meat — which is ‘often loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat, which have starring roles in poor heart health,’ — as well as a decreased consumption of processed meats ‘like deli meat, bacon and sausage,’ which are oftentimes loaded with sodium.”
Plant-Based Foods that Champion Healthy Blood Pressure
Plant-based eating is overall really great for the human body. By eating raw and organic plant-based foods, you infuse your body with a nutrient-dense product that is high in anti-inflammatory compounds, rich with antioxidants, and low in cholesterol. Plus, certain plant-based foods are actually great at helping to maintain healthy blood pressure and even lower high blood pressure. In particular, choose foods that are low in sodium, rich in potassium, high in phytonutrients, and filled with fiber to aid in healthy weight management.
A leading cause of high blood pressure is too much sodium. Increased sodium intake is one of the major issues with the Standard American Diet. Most processed and packaged foods, as well as food ordered at restaurants, generally are laced with a ton of sodium sourced from table salt. Plus, when cooking at home, many Americans add additional sodium intake. In fact, it’s estimated that Americans consume around “3.4 grams of sodium per day.” Plant-based foods are naturally low in sodium, therefore switching to this type of diet will automatically help solve your sodium intake problem, yet it’s important to balance this out with an increase of potassium.
Spinach is one of those truly heroic plant-based foods that is truly underrated. Spinach offers a balanced dose of sodium and potassium, while also offering a slew of other nutrients including calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, omega fatty acids, and vitamins A, C, and folate.
Plus, spinach is super easy to cook with. Eat it raw in a salad, — such as this Wild Green Quinoa Salad — cook it up to a creamy delight — such as in these Classic Spinach Crepes — or blend it into a green soup or smoothie — such as in this Green Soup or this Mint Chocolate Smoothie.
Phytonutrients — “chemicals produced by plants” that happen to have “antioxidant and anti-inflammatory” properties” — are great for overall body health, as well as treating high blood pressure. Phytonutrients have also been shown to provide a variety of health benefits such as “[enhancing] immunity and intercellular communication, [repairing] DNA damage from exposure to toxins, [detoxifying] carcinogens and [altering] estrogen metabolism.” These incredibly powerful compounds can be found in “colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, tea, whole grains, and many spices.”
Beets are an excellent source of natural sugar — to add a bit of sweetness to your diet — nutrients, and colorful phytonutrients! Plus, beets are diverse when it comes to plant-based cooking. You can use them to create decadent treats — such as this No-Bake Crimson Velvet Cheesecake — go meatless — such as in this Lentil and Beet Meatballs with Pasta — or try and go raw — such as in this Orange Vinaigrette Beet Salad.
I won’t say that oats are the cure-all plant-based food, but they are pretty darn close! Most oat brands offer fully gluten-free options (those that are processed in a gluten-free facility), which checks off that box. Plus, oats are excellent for overall health from lowering cholesterol, boosting gut and digestive health, maintaining a healthy weight, and even lowering blood pressure. When it comes to lower blood pressure, one of the main causes along with sodium is obesity. Therefore, integrating plant-based foods that promote healthy weight management or weight loss is a key component to lowering and maintaining healthy blood pressure.
Oats are also super delicious! While you can use them to bake or create savory dinner concoctions, one of the most popular ways to enjoy these delicious nibbles is in oatmeal and porridge recipes. And there’s really no end to the ways to make a personalized oatmeal concoction! Try out a few of these super creative and healthy options: Citrus Carrot and Cranberry Oatmeal, Beetroot Cake Porridge, Frosted Gingerbread Baked Oatmeal, Pumpkin Overnight Oatmeal, or these Roasted Cauliflower and Coconut Overnight Porridge Pots.
We highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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