High blood pressure is the number-one risk factor for death in the world. In the United States, it affects nearly 78 million people, one in three adults. As we age, our blood pressures get higher and higher, such that by age 60, high blood pressure strikes more than half of us.
Given that it affects most of us when we get older, could high blood pressure be less a disease and more just an inevitable consequence of aging? No. We’ve known since the 1920s that high blood pressure need not occur, which I discuss in my video How Not to Die from High Blood Pressure.
Researchers measured the blood pressures of a thousand people in rural Kenya, where their traditional diet included more whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, and dark leafy greens. Though our pressures go up as we age, their pressures actually go down.
With blood pressure, the lower, the better. The 140/90 cut-off you may have heard here or there is arbitrary. Even people who start out with blood pressures under 120/80 appear to benefit from blood pressure reduction. Your doctor would likely give you a gold star if you had a blood pressure of 120/80, but research indicates the ideal blood pressure—blood pressure that wouldn’t get benefit from being any lower—may actually be 110/70.
Is it even possible to get blood pressures as low as 110/70? It’s not just possible—it’s normal for those living healthy enough lives.
Over two years, 1,800 patients were admitted to a rural Kenyan hospital. How many cases of high blood pressure were found? Zero. Wow they must have had low rates of heart disease. No, in fact, they had no rates of heart disease. Not a single case of our number-one killer, arteriosclerosis, was found. Rural China, too. There, people are about 110/70 their entire lives—70-year-olds with the same average blood pressure as 16-year-olds.
Those in Asia and Africa traditionally eat vastly different diets, but they do share a commonality: Both were plant-based day-to-day, with meat eaten only on special occasions. Why do we think it’s the plant-based nature of their diets that was so protective? Because in the Western world, as the American Heart Association has pointed out, the only people getting their blood pressures down that low were those eating strictly plant-based diets, coming in around 110/65.
The largest study to date of people eating plant-based diets studied 89,000 Californians. Non-vegetarians were compared to semi-vegetarians (also called flexitarians, those who eat meat more on a weekly rather than daily basis), pesco-vegetarians (those who eat no meat except fish), lacto-ovo-vegetarians (those who eat no meat at all), and vegans (who eat no meat, eggs, or dairy).
The subjects were Seventh-day Adventists, who all tended to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, exercise, and not smoke, and even the nonvegetarians didn’t eat a lot of meat. So, even compared to a group of relatively healthy meat-eaters, there appeared to be a step-wise drop in hypertension rates as people ate more and more plant-based diets, with vegans having lower rates than lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who had lower rates than pesco-vegetarians, and so on—and the researchers found the same for diabetes and obesity.
So, yes: We can wipe out most of our risk by eating a strictly plant-based diet, but it’s not all-or-nothing. It isn’t black-or-white. Any movement we can make along the spectrum towards healthier eating can accrue significant health benefits.
This can be shown experimentally: Give vegetarians some meat (and pay them enough to eat it), and their blood pressures go up. In another study, meat was removed from people’s diets, and their blood pressures went down—and did so in only seven days. What’s more, this was after the vast majority had reduced or even stopped their blood pressure medications completely. Indeed, the subjects had to stop their medications because once you treat the cause, you can’t be on multiple blood pressure pills with normal blood pressure. Your pressures could fall too low and you could get dizzy, fall, and hurt yourself, so your doctor has to take you off the pills. Lower blood pressures on fewer drugs—that’s the power of plants.
So, does the American Heart Association recommend a no-meat diet? No, it recommends a low-meat diet, known as Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or the DASH diet. Why wouldn’t the AHA recommend a completely plant-based diet? When the DASH diet was being created, were they just not aware of this landmark research, done by Harvard’s Frank Sacks showing those who eat strictly plant-based average 110/65? No, they were aware. The Chair of the Design Committee that came up with the DASH diet was Frank Sacks.
As he described, the DASH diet was designed explicitly with the number-one goal of capturing “the blood pressure-lowering benefits of a vegetarian diet, yet contain enough animal products to make them palatable” to the general population. They didn’t think the public could handle the truth.
In their defense, just as drugs don’t work unless you actually take them, diets don’t work unless you actually eat them. So, maybe they thought few would eat strictly plant-based, so by soft-peddling the message, by coming up with a kind of compromise diet perhaps on a population scale they felt it would do more good. Fine, but tell that to the thousand American families who lose a loved one every day to high blood pressure.
Maybe it’s time to start telling the American public the truth.
The first time someone visits NutritionFacts.org can be overwhelming. With videos on more than 2,000 health topics, where do you even begin? Imagine stumbling onto the site not knowing what to expect and the new video-of-the-day is about how a particular spice can be effective in treating a particular form of arthritis. It would be easy to miss the forest for the trees, which is precisely why I created a series of overview videos that are essentially taken straight from my live, hour-long 2016 presentation How Not to Die: Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.
The other videos in this overview series are:
Inspired to learn more about the role diet may play in preventing and treating high blood pressure? Check out these other popular videos on the topic:
Michael Greger, M.D.