A new study that looked at seven different diets showed that a plant-based approach lowers blood pressure best, but it still works if the person eats a small amount of meat and dairy.

High blood pressure is the number one factor in strokes, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular diseases, so eating more plant-based to lower blood pressure is a global priority, the study authors said since it could save nearly 5 million premature deaths a year.

“This is a significant finding, as it highlights that complete eradication of animal products is not necessary to produce reductions and improvements in blood pressure," the lead author of the study said. "Essentially, any shift towards a plant-based diet is a good one.”

This is good news for flexitarians, or any vegan cheaters out there. You don't have to be 100 percent strict to get the health benefits of eating plant-based, but because that notion is a slippery slope (human behavior being what it is) the best approach to healthy eating is to still try to eat plant-based all the time, and forgive yourself if you occasionally mess up.

The findings of the study, from the University of Warwick in the UK, are this:

  • Eating Mostly Plant-Based is Healthy: A diet rich in plant-based foods can include a limited amount of animal products and still improve blood pressure.
  • Out of 7 Diets, Plant-Based Wins as Healthiest: Researchers compared the impact of seven plant-based diets on blood pressure in a review of previous studies
  • You Need to Pay Attention to Blood Pressure: High blood pressure is the leading risk factor globally for heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases
  • Shifting to Plant-Based Is the Healthiest Choice: Lead author Joshua Gibbs of University of Warwick: “Essentially, any shift towards a plant-based diet is a good one.”

In a surprising finding, which may upset strict vegans, the study found, "Consuming a plant-based diet can lower blood pressure, even if small amounts of meat and dairy are consumed too," but it failed to specify what they mean by "small amounts."

Published on the Warwick Medical School in the Journal of Hypertension's online site, the authors urge people to make an effort to "increase plant-based foods in your diet and limit animal products" to benefit your blood pressure and reduce future risk of heart attacks, strokes and all cardiovascular disease. After a review of controlled clinical trials that compared seven plant-based diets, several of which included animal products in small amounts, to a standardized control diet they found that plant-based diets worked best.

Plant-based was defined as a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, with only limited consumption of animal products (such as meat and dairy).

High blood pressure is a factor in the causes of stroke and heart attack

The authors point out that high blood pressure is the leading risk factor globally for heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases. Reducing high blood pressure has health benefits both for individuals and overall for the costs to our healthcare system, since "unhealthy diets are responsible for more deaths and disabilities globally than tobacco use, high alcohol intake, drug use and unsafe sex put together," according to the report. By increasing our consumption of whole grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and fruit, as achieved in plant-based diets, we could avert up to 4.9 million deaths globally, the research found.

Vegetarian and vegan diets are best against heart disease but harder to sustain

Diets that are completely absent of animal products are known to lower blood pressure, compared to omnivorous diets, the authors point out. But for many people that goal is not as sustainable as a diet that allows small amounts of dairy or animal products, they add, with the purpose of finding out whether even a small amount of animal products will rerail the health benefits bestowed by eating a strictly vegan dietary approach. "Until now, it has not been known whether a complete absence of animal products is necessary for plant-based dietary patterns to achieve a significant beneficial effect on blood pressure."

“We reviewed 41 studies involving 8,416 participants, in which the effects of seven different plant-based diets (including DASH, Mediterranean, Vegetarian, Vegan, Nordic, high fiber and high fruit and vegetables) on blood pressure were studied in controlled clinical trials," said lead author Joshua Gibbs, a student in the University of Warwick School of Life Sciences. "A systematic review and meta-analysis of these studies showed that most of these diets lowered blood pressure. The DASH diet had the largest effect reducing blood pressure by 5.53/3.79 mmHg compared to a control diet, and by 8.74/6.05 mmHg when compared to a ‘usual’ diet.

The findings mean that everyone should try to eat more plant-based for their health

“A blood pressure reduction of the scale caused by higher consumption of plant-based diets, even with limited animal products would result in a 14% reduction in strokes, a 9% reduction in heart attacks, and a 7% reduction in overall mortality.

“This is a significant finding as it highlights that complete eradication of animal products is not necessary to produce reductions and improvements in blood pressure. Essentially, any shift towards a plant-based diet is a good one.”

Senior author, Professor Francesco Cappuccio of Warwick Medical School, added: “The adoption of plant-based dietary patterns would also play a role in global food sustainability and security. They would contribute to a reduction in land use due to human activities, to global water conservation, and to a significant reduction in global greenhouse gas emission.

“The study shows the efficacy of a plant-based diet on blood pressure. However, the translation of this knowledge into real benefits to people, i.e. its effectiveness, depends on a variety of factors related to both individual choices and to governments’ policy decisions. For example, for an individual, the ability to adopt a plant-based diet would be influenced by socio-economic factors (costs, availability, access), perceived benefits and difficulties, resistance to change, age, health status, low adherence due to palatability and acceptance.

“To overcome these barriers, we ought to formulate strategies to influence beliefs about plant-based diets, plant food availability and costs, multisectoral actions to foster policy changes focusing on environmental sustainability of food production, science gathering, and health consequences.”

Here are the seven plant-based diets examined in the review study

Plant-based dietPrincipal components
1. Healthy Nordic dietHigher content of plant foods, fish, egg, and vegetable fat, and lower content of meat products, dairy products,sweets, desserts, and alcoholic beverages
2. High-fruit and vegetable dietIncreased consumption of fruit and vegetables. To further increase the polyphenolic load, some studies included regular dark chocolate content
3. High-fiber dietFiber is found in varying levels in all plant foods and is most prevalent in whole grains and legumes. For this reason, most high-fiber diets focus on increasing wholegrain and legume consumption
4. Lacto-ovo vegetarian dietDefined as those that exclude the consumption of all meat, poultry, and fish but still include the consumption of dairy and eggs. The main components include fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds
5. DASH dietEncourages the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and low-fat dairy products and limits the intake of sweets, saturated fat, and sodium
6. Mediterranean dietThe main components are daily consumption of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, olive oil, weekly consumption of legumes, nuts, fish, dairy, and eggs, and limited intake of meat
7. Strict Vegan dietConsists of plant foods exclusively. No animal flesh or other animal-derived products (including dairy and eggs) are included. It is mostly low-fat and focuses on the consumption of whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds

You can also watch a video abstract for this study.

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