Almost every health article about plant-based foods most likely has blood pressure somewhere hidden within the content. This indirect commenting doesn’t mean it’s not important, it just means that plant-based foods are really great at maintaining healthy blood pressure, so it gets mentioned quite a bit.
I decided to take a quick moment and shine a spotlight on blood pressure and get to know this integral function in the human body.
Explaining the mechanism or what blood pressure actually is, isn’t the difficult part. To put it simply, blood pressure is a reading that shows how strong your blood is pressing against the sides of blood vessels as your heart pumps it through your body. A little less simply, with the beat of your heart, blood is pumped through your body, providing “energy and oxygen it needs,” and “as the blood moves, it pushes against the sides of the blood vessels.” Blood pressure refers to the “strength of this pushing.”
Blood pressure is a great indicator of heart health, signaling when all is okay or when something is wrong. For instance, if your blood pressure “is too high, it puts extra strain on your arteries (and your heart) and this may lead to heart attacks and strokes.” High blood pressure can also be a sign of elevated stress and anxiety or an unhealthy diet.
Blood Pressure Categories
The American Heart Association provides a breakdown of the different blood pressure categories of which there are five: normal, elevated, hypertension stage 1, hypertension stage 2, and hypertensive crisis. For this article, I’m tagging on an additional category called hypotension, which refers to low blood pressure. We should all aim for normal blood pressure (120/80 mm Hg). Consistently elevated blood pressure isn’t necessarily a crisis, but it is an indicator that you are “likely to develop high blood pressure unless steps are taken to control the condition.”
On the other hand, high and low blood pressure are somewhat urgent medical conditions that should be addressed with your doctor as soon as possible.
All About High Blood Pressure
Once your blood pressure “consistently ranges from 130-139 systolic or 80-89 mm Hg diastolic” you’ve hit stage one of hypertension. Oftentimes, you’ll be prescribed a blood pressure medication and almost always your doctor will recommend lifestyle changes. Once you’ve hit 140/90 mm Hg or higher, you are officially in hypertension stage two and will be guided to follow the same guidelines as stage one, yet with more aggression. Lastly, if your blood pressure “readings suddenly exceed 180/120 mm Hg” then you may be experiencing hypertensive crisis and need immediate medical attention. This last category also comes with “possible organ damage such as chest pain, shortness of breath, back pain, numbness/weakness, [and] change in vision or difficulty speaking.”
Oftentimes, the causes of hypertension are directly known. In fact, about “1 in every 20 cases of hypertension is the effect of an underlying condition or medication,” such as chronic kidney disease (CKD). With that said, there are risk factors that can increase the chance that you will develop high blood pressure such as age and sex, — the risk goes up if you’re over 60 and males generally develop hypertension sooner than women — weight, — overweight or obesity increases the risk — and if you use alcohol and tobacco. Plus, certain existing health conditions also increase the risk of hypertension such as “cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and high cholesterol levels.”
All About Low Blood Pressure
Low blood pressure is known as hypotension. While some people naturally have low readings, when they dip too low it can begin causing health problems. Low blood pressure manifests as dizziness, fainting, blurred vision, nausea, fatigue, and even lack of concentration. Hypotension can also cause the body to go into shock, a life-threatening condition causing confusion, cold, clammy, pale skin, rapid or shallow breathing, and a weak or rapid pulse.
If your reading is “lower than 90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) for the top number (systolic) or 60 mm Hg for the bottom number (diastolic),” then you’ve hit that low blood pressure range. Causes for low blood pressure range from “dehydration to serious medical or surgical disorders,” such as heart problems, endocrine problems, blood loss, severe infection or allergic reaction, and even a lack of nutrients in your diet.
The Relationship Between Blood Pressure and Plant-Based Foods
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.”
The American Heart Association also highlights the benefits of what they call a “plant-forward” diet as being beneficial for not only your blood pressure, but also heart disease, stroke, obesity, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and even many cancers. They attribute a plant-based diet 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.
Plus, there is a ton of study-specific evidence showing that a meat-free and high plant-based food diet maintains a healthy blood pressure! For instance, a study performed by John McDougall, MD of St. Helena Hospital in Deer Park, California observed 500 subjects for 12 days who consumed strictly a “low fat, whole foods, plant-based diet: fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes and excluded; all animal products and alcohol.” Along with this healthy diet, participants “also exercised and practiced stress management techniques.” All participants showed a significant drop in blood pressure!
While all raw, organic plant-based foods are great for your body, there are a few in particular that are great for those suffering from hypertension (high blood pressure) or hypotension (low blood pressure). Instead of focusing on just one plant-based food, you’ll want to select certain foods in some particular categories.
One of the first things your doctor may tell you if you’ve got high blood pressure is to lower your sodium intake. The Standard American diet is filled with high-sodium foods such as processed and packaged food, meats, cheeses, and poultry. It’s estimated that we ingest around 3.4 grams of sodium per day. Switching to a plant-based diet naturally lowers your sodium intake, yet with the transition, you want to make sure you’re balancing this drop with an increase in potassium. Per VegNews, studies have shown that those with higher potassium intake generally have healthier blood pressure readings.
Focus on high-potassium, plant-based foods such as “avocados, spinach, and squash,” which “are all naturally rich in potassium.” These foods are also incredibly tasty and super easy to cook with such as this rich Avocado Mousse, this spinach-rich Wild Green Quinoa Salad, these Butternut Squash Fritters, or this Roasted Acorn Squash With Curried Chickpea and Veggies.
If you’re eating a plant-based diet, then you are eating phytonutrients.
Phytonutrients (also commonly called phytochemical), “are chemicals produced by plants,” used to protect the plant from insects, UV ray radiation, and basically keep that plant as healthy as possible throughout its life. They also happen to be super beneficial for humans! These chemicals have “antioxidant and anti-inflammatory” properties and have been shown to “enhance immunity and intercellular communication, repair DNA damage from exposure to toxins, detoxify carcinogens and alter estrogen metabolism.”
Phytonutrients can be found in “colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, tea, whole grains, and many spices.” Basically, almost every plant-based food you can think of! With that said, focus on diversifying colors — such as in this Beetroot Falafel Rainbow Salad or this Sushi Bowl With Sesame-Crusted Tofu — integrating dark leafy greens — such as with this super simple Raw Kale Salad or this 15-Minute Rainbow Chard, Red Bean, and Peanut Stew — and consuming whole grains — such as this super yummy Peanut Butter Overnight Oats.
One of the main risk factors for unhealthy blood pressure is obesity. Therefore, if you currently have high blood pressure or are looking to decrease the likelihood of developing high blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight is key. Luckily, plant-based foods are naturally good at this! They not only help lower cholesterol (veggies have zero cholesterol), but plant-based foods are naturally lower free of trans fat, low in saturated fat, and high in metabolism-friendly nutrients. If you’re aiming to lose weight or simply maintain current healthy weight, focus on plant-based foods that are high in dietary fiber, protein, and healthy fat and are lower in sugar and sodium. These foods include legumes — such as this protein-rich Red Lentils and Butternut Squash Burgers — nuts and seeds — such as this dietary fiber-rich Crustless Mushroom Quiche and Walnut Bread — and healthy, fat-filled oils including coconut oil — such as in this Coconut Oil Crispy Rice — and extra-virgin olive oil — such as in this Brussels Sprouts Salad with Macadamia and Apple.
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