Attention meat lovers: Switching a plate of rib eye steak for a plate of greens could seem downright absurd, but if it’s good for your health, you may become a vegetable lover, too. Whether you’re a vegetarian because you’re against animal cruelty, an environmentalist, or socially conscious of the global food shortage, a meatless lifestyle is heart healthy. According to a study in JAMA: Internal Medicine, a vegetarian diet can lower cholesterol, promote weight loss, and reduce blood pressure by about half the drop expected from medication.

Approximately a third of American adults have high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, or the “silent killer,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition seldom provides warning signs and can have deadly health consequences if not treated. A healthy blood pressure reading is 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). Systolic blood pressure, or the first number, measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart muscle contracts, or beats. Diastolic blood pressure, or the second number, measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart is still and refilling with blood.

Patients diagnosed with high blood pressure tend to either have a greater than normal volume of blood, narrower arteries, or a heartbeat that beats faster or more forcefully than it should. The force of the blood against the artery walls can be high enough to cause serious health problems such as heart disease. Modifiable risk factors for high blood pressure include: being overweight or obese, physically inactive, using tobacco, consuming too much salt, too little potassium and vitamin D, too much alcohol, and stress.

Although the condition practically has no symptoms, high blood pressure can be easily detected by doctors. Patients can be proactive about the steps they take to control their blood pressure by adopting several lifestyle changes that can keep it at bay. Simply modifying food intake could potentially have similar effects to that of prescription drugs for high blood pressure.

A team of researchers at the National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Center in Osaka, Japan, sought to investigate the suggested association between vegetarian diets and lower blood pressure that has yet to be well established. The study gave a systematic review and meta-analysis of seven controlled clinical trials and 32 observational studies. Over 300 participants were involved in the clinical trials, while more than 21,000 participants were assessed in the observational studies. The study also examined a range of diets including semi-vegetarian, vegan, lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, and pesco-vegetarian.

In the seven clinical trials, the participants who followed a vegetarian diet had a systolic blood pressure that was 4.8 mm Hg lower on average than their non-vegetarian counterparts. The vegetarians’ diastolic blood pressure was lower by an average of 2.2 mm Hg. However, in the observational studies, there were even larger decreases in blood pressure. Participants who were on a vegetarian diet had an average decrease of 6.9 mm Hg for systolic blood pressure, and 4.7 mm Hg for diastolic blood pressure, the researchers wrote. These findings provide solid scientific data for vegetarian diets and the average of its blood pressure lowering effect.

Although the blood pressure study did not specify one type of vegetarianism from another, Dr. Neal Barnard, researcher of the study, suggests even a semi-vegetarian diet does help. “We might suspect that a vegan pattern is going to be the best simply because studies have shown that vegans are the thinnest," Barnard told The Atlantic. "People who add cheese and eggs tend to be a little heavier, although they’re always thinner than the meat eaters. We have suspected that when people go vegan their blood pressures will be a little bit lower, but so far the data don’t really show that."

While the research found a vegetarian diet cuts blood pressure by about half that expected of medication, it remains unclear what exactly is a vegetarian diet in regard to the study. The researchers cannot simply tell you how much meat to eat since the definition varies from person to person. Also, completely removing meat from the patient’s diet doesn’t automatically lead to a healthier heart. Adopting a meatless lifestyle could avoid, delay, or reduce the need for medication. The Mayo Clinic emphasizes lifestyle plays an important role in treating your high blood pressure.

If opting to go the vegetarian route, patients should be aware there are vegetarian foods that are high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar, which can take a toll on your health, too. The key is to get plenty of fruits and vegetables, eat less salt, maintain a healthy weight, and only moderately consume alcohol if you must. These recommendations along with keeping up with an active lifestyle will effectively contribute to a drop in blood pressure.

 

Source: Barnard ND, Miyamoto Y, Nishimura K, et al. Vegetarian Diets and Blood Pressure: A Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014.