Posted on March 04 2018
Before I started to summarize the chapters in Dr. Michael Greger’s Book, How Not To Die, I wrote an earlier health blog back in January, 2018 on high blood pressure in response to the change in the definition of “normal” blood pressure by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. Dr. Greger’s Chapter 7 on high blood pressure builds on that first blog (which you may want to review as background to this blog by scrolling back to that earlier blog).
While high blood pressure (also called hypertension) is the number 7 greatest killer of Americans, it is the number 1 risk factor for death in the world. It kills 9 million people per year worldwide, in large part because high blood pressure exacerbates so many other deadly diseases (like heart attacks and strokes, aneurysms, and kidney failure). One of the reasons why it is a relatively less deadly disease for Americans is that Americans have better access to blood pressure reducing medicines (diuretics, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, and calcium-channel blockers). On average, high blood pressure medicines reduce the risk of heart attack by 15% and the risk of stroke by 25%. But, these drugs can have other, less welcome side effects such as increased breast cancer risk, lethargy and impotence, swelling, electrolyte disturbances, and increased risk of serious fall injuries. Is it possible to reduce high blood pressure without using these potentially risky medicines? The answer is emphatically “yes”!
It turns out that if everyone ate more fruits it would save almost 5 million people from dying from high blood pressure worldwide. Want to improve your odds further? Eating more nuts and seeds would save an additional 2.5 million people. More vegetables would save 1.8 million lives. More whole grains? Another 1.7 million people. There is your answer: eat a more plant-based diet. Let’s look at this idea in a more detailed fashion.
It turns out that some of the things we Americans eat are particularly harmful and increase our blood pressure, so not only do we need to eat more fruits and other plant-based foods, but we must figure out how to reduce our consumption of things like salt. Eating too much salt may kill up to 4 million people per year. Eating salt (sodium) causes the body to retain water to which your body responds by pumping harder to push the excess fluid and salt out of your system, raising your blood pressure. In addition, salt directly negatively impacts the ability of tiny blood vessels in the body to carry blood and causes the arteries to stiffen.
The American Heart Association recommends that you consume less than 1,500 mg of salt per day (about three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt). The average American consumes more than twice that amount, 3,500 mg per day. So, day after day, your heart has to pump harder than it should to push the excess water and salt out of your system, only to have to repeat that effort the next day, and the next, etc.
It isn’t the salt that you put on your food with your salt shaker that is the biggest problem here. It is the salt that is added to processed foods and prepared foods (i.e. restaurant meals) that are the biggest problems. And, in addition to soups, the foods that are most likely to increase your salt consumption are meats. That is because grocers add salt water to the meats they sell in order to increase their weight (and therefore the amount you have to pay for them). Adding salt to meat causes the meat to draw in water, increasing its weight by as much as 20%. And injecting salt water into meat does not prevent the meat from being sold as “100% natural” because there are no strict definitions for the word “natural” on food. Consumer Reports found that some supermarket chickens were pumped so full of salt that they registered a whopping 840 mg of sodium per chicken breast. Another big contributor of salt to our diets is pizza, a single slice of which (like pepperoni pizza) can contribute more than one-half of our total daily recommended limit of salt.
So, the most effective way to reduce salt intake is to eat less processed foods, prepared foods, and meat and eat more natural, unprocessed plant-based foods. The American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, and the Centers for Disease Control all recommend the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet to reduce high blood pressure. The DASH diet is not meatless. It emphasizes fruit, vegetables, and low-fat dairy, but allows meat. You are just supposed to eat less meat and more of the other stuff. Check it out, it may save your life. Here's why.
Based on a study of 89,000 Californians, it was found that compared to people who ate meat more than once per week, those who ate less meat (perhaps a few times per month) had 23% lower rate of high blood pressure, those who cut out all meat but continued to eat fish had a 38% lower rate of high blood pressure, and those who cut out all meat and fish had a 55% lower rate. Finally, those who cut out all meat, fish, eggs and diary (vegans) had a 75% lower rate of high blood pressure. The vegans also weighed about 30 pounds less on average than those eating a more conventional diet.
The benefits of a completely plant-based diet are even more dramatically demonstrated by a study of Americans who were long-distance endurance runners (i.e. they ran, on average, 48 miles per week!). Compared to typical, sedentary Americans who ate a conventional diet (average blood pressure of 132/79 which is now officially labeled “high blood pressure” under the new guidelines just announced, see Healthy Moments Blog #1 on the new standards), the runners, of course, had lower blood pressure: on average, 122/72 (which is now considered “elevated” blood pressure). But what about sedentary vegans? Their blood pressure averaged 104/62, substantially below the new recommended guideline of less than 120/80. So, apparently eating a plant-based diet is better for your blood pressure than running 48 miles per week. Wow!!!
Are there specific foods within the plant world that are especially helpful in reducing high blood pressure? Again, the answer is “yes”. Whole grains provide the same benefit in terms of reducing high blood pressure as taking high blood pressure medication. And, whole grains have other beneficial “side effects” like reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes (see Healthy Moment Blog # 7), coronary heart disease (Blog # 2), and colon cancer (Blog # 5). Another extremely beneficial food is ground flaxseed, which by itself appears to be two to three times more powerful in reducing high blood pressure than an aerobic endurance exercise program or taking blood pressure reducing drugs. And, ground flaxseed also helps control cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation and even help with constipation. Finally, beets, beet juice and beet greens, swiss chard, oak leaf lettuce, basil, mesclun greens, butter leaf lettuce, cilantro, rhubarb, and the #1 vegetable, arugula, are all helpful in reducing high blood pressure because of their very high nitrate levels (which helps your blood flow by relaxing the muscle fibers in your arteries, the same effect as produced by the heart medicine nitroglycerin).
Another problem our typical diets create is the gradual increase in blood pressure as we age. Our arteries become less flexible over time (probably due largely to our continued over consumption of salt and fats in our diet) so doctors used to adjust their definition of “normal” blood pressure based on how old you are. But studies of populations that are vegetarian show that blood pressure does not necessarily have to rise with age.
As detailed in Blog #1, the only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have your blood pressure measured, which you should do at least once per year. If your blood pressure is 120/80 or higher, you should seriously consider altering your diet to a more heart-healthy DASH-like diet. And, if you want to ensure that you get all of the benefits of beets (in Juice Plus Garden and Orchard Blends) and fruit (in both Juice Plus Vineyard and Orchard Blends) you may want to consider supplementing your diet with natural, whole-plant-food nutrition Juice Plus capsules. Stay healthy. Remember, “artful living” is healthy living.