Sherra Aguirre has a family history of high blood pressure that is so dramatic, it has cut short the lives of two cousins and left her parents tied to daily medication. She saw these circumstances as cautionary tales and decided to do everything she could to offset a family history that illustrated what can happen when this condition goes unchecked.

Known as the Silent Killer, high blood pressure affects 108 million Americans, or nearly half of all adults, has no symptoms, and can lead to strokes, heart attacks, and sudden death. That's the bad news, but there is good news as well, since lifestyle choices can have a major impact on who suffers from high blood pressure, and how to bring it under control. Studies have shown that getting daily exercise, practicing mindful de-stressing techniques, and eating a diet rich in plant-based foods and low in animal products such as meat and dairy can help to lower blood pressure naturally, bringing this untamed assailant to its knees.

One thing Sherra Aguirre learned in her journey to find natural solutions to high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is that diet, above all else, can help roll back the symptoms and lower blood pressure to healthy levels, and now she is aiming to help others, especially in the African American community, learn the power of eating a mostly plant-based diet to prevent and treat high blood pressure since this type of diet has proven to be powerful on lowering blood pressure as drugs.

Aguirre is a health enthusiast and food justice advocate who is passionate about empowering others–especially communities that are at high risk for diabetes and heart disease–to maintain good health at every age. She eliminated symptoms of her hypertension, despite the fact that her family tree is rife with cases of heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure. She switched to a whole plant-based diet and ditched her meds completely, and feels better than ever thanks to her new way of eating.

Aguirre hopes her book, Joyful, Delicious, Vegan: Life Without Heart Disease, will empower others to beat back hypertension and heart disease, by providing simple, effective ways to prevent and reverse heart disease, despite family history. The book is aimed at anyone who wants to enjoy a healthy, symptom-free life, especially African American women and other communities who are at high risk for diabetes and heart disease.

The Beet: Why did you go plant-based or vegan?

Sherra: As I turned thirty, I started to notice that after my fast food lunch – usually burgers, fried chicken, or pizza – my energy would tank and I had to struggle through the afternoon at work. I started to make changes based on what I ate and how I felt afterward. I eliminated fried food first, then beef, and eventually all meat. I continued to eat fish and dairy until in my fifties my blood pressure started to creep up, despite a mostly vegetarian diet. I had read enough to know that although I was on the right path and I had to go further. I was also very sympathetic to the animal rights argument.

The Beet: What was the health impetus: High blood pressure or diabetes?

Sherra: Hypertension, strokes, aneurysms, and heart attacks are common on both sides of my family. For as long as I could remember both my parents were on high blood pressure medications. Some of the deaths of close relatives were both sudden and untimely, as was the case with a cousin, who came home from work with a splitting headache, went to bed, and never woke up. Another cousin was on his way to a vacation with his wife and dropped dead of a heart attack at the airport. Both were in their forties, were on medications for high blood pressure, and thought their conditions were under control.

The Beet: That's tragic! Is plant-based working for you? What were the immediate benefits?

Sherra: The first benefit was an increase in energy, followed by greater mental clarity. The latter however may be debated by my family.

The Beet: What were the biggest challenges of going plant-based?

Sherra: The biggest challenge for me was finding vegan recipes and restaurant options that were heart healthy, i.e. oil-free, low sodium, and free of processed sugar. This is super important for the prevention or reversal of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Ultimately the best solution for me was learning to make delicious vegan food in my own kitchen that I loved and that loved me back.

The Beet: When you went plant-based what was the biggest triumph along the way?

Sherra: The biggest triumph for me was reversing my hypertension symptoms with a whole plant-based diet, despite a lengthy family history of heart disease.

The Beet: What is your favorite snack that is both vegan and healthy

Sherra: I love to have a small handful of raw nuts, usually walnuts or pistachios. I have to remember not to overdo it!

The Beet: What do you eat for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner?

Sherra: I eat two good size meals each day that I really enjoy. It is not something I recommend however it works well for me. In Joyful, Delicious, Vegan: Life Without Heart Disease I do recommend listening to your body. When I wake up, I am not hungry. Mornings are my creative time and I express that energy in meditation, yoga, and in planning my day to include the insight from this process.

I have my break-fast from noon to 1:00 pm which is a big plate of whatever fresh fruits are in season and in my fridge – grapefruit, apple or pear slices, blueberries, blackberries, melon, mango slices, etc.– with a bowl of steel-cut oats or granola with raisins, and sometimes a green smoothie. Buckwheat pancakes are a weekend favorite!

My dinner, which I eat between 7 and 8 pm, is based around a main course salad with various salad greens, fresh veggies, avocado, nuts, seeds, and a homemade dressing, all colorful and hearty. My sides are typically lentils, beans or black-eyed peas over rice or quinoa and with cornbread or corn tortillas. My favorite dessert is chocolate chip and raisin oatmeal cookies made with almond butter and maple syrup!

The Beet: What advice would you have for somebody wanting to go plant-based? 

Sherra: In my book, I explain why “don’ts don’t work." To make any positive change sustainable you have to focus on where you want to go and not on what you’re leaving behind. Focus on finding delicious plant-based foods that you enjoy and not on what you can’t have. There are tips and strategies to make that journey successful and fun.

The Beet: Did you spark someone else to go plant-based?

Many friends and family members are more open to eating plant-based because they see the health benefits, and they’ve tried vegan food that they love. I am happiest that my two granddaughters are on the path. One has been vegan for a year and the other is mostly plant-based. Compassion for the animals and the environment are big motivators for them.

The Beet: Do you have a mantra?

Sherra: Self-compassion makes compassion for every life, and for Earth itself, natural and joyful.

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