High blood pressure is on the rise (pun intended) and people who receive this diagnosis often look for ways to manage or cure high blood pressure through diet. There are different dietary patterns associated with lower blood pressure. With the rise of vegan and plant-based diets, these dietary patterns are starting to be used in prevention and management of high blood pressure. But do foods have the power to raise or lower blood pressure?
This page covers:
- What is High Blood Pressure?
- Why is High Blood Pressure a Problem?
- What Diet Increases Risk of High Blood Pressure?
- What Diet Decreases Risk of High Blood Pressure?
- Lifestyle Changes vs Medication for Blood Pressure Management
- Is High Blood Pressure Curable?
- Recipes for High Blood Pressure from Lettuce Veg Out
Please note: This is a broad overview of the topic and the details about physiology/ pathophysiology have been simplified for easy reading and understanding. Always speak to a doctor before making any changes to your diet and/ or medications.
What is High Blood Pressure?
Let’s start with the basics. The heart pumps blood all over the body through tubes called arteries (which flow away from the heart) and veins (which flow back toward the heart). As you might imagine, there’s pressure inside these arteries and veins. This is called blood pressure. Essentially, it’s the pressure our blood exerts on the walls of arteries and veins.
Blood pressure can vary greatly and depends on how much blood there is in the body, how wide the arteries or veins are, and other factors. Smaller or narrower arteries, or those that don’t stretch well, leads to increased pressure because it’s harder for the blood to pass through.
High blood pressure is known as a “silent killer” because most people with high blood pressure don’t notice any signs or symptoms, but the issue is present and causing harm.
Why is High Blood Pressure a Problem?
High blood pressure is a concern because it can damage the arteries and heart as well as the kidneys and eyes.
High Blood Pressure Damages Arteries
High blood pressure damages arteries over time. Where damage occurs, the body tries to heal itself like when you get a cut and a scab forms. Scabs on the inside of the artery wall can grow over time, narrowing the artery further, and increasing blood pressure (since there is less room for blood to move through, pressure builds up).
This process of the arteries becoming damaged is called atherosclerosis and can lead to heart attacks and stroke.
High Blood Pressure Damages the Heart
High blood pressure also damages the heart. When blood pressure is high, the heart has to work harder to pump blood around. Over time, this could lead to enlargement of the heart (often the left side of the heart) which can further limit the heart’s ability to pump blood.
Eventually, this type of heart damage can lead to a diagnosis of heart failure.
Other Harm that can Result from High Blood Pressure
Having high blood pressure can also damage kidneys and eyes. These organs have very small arteries and other blood vessels that are easier to damage with high pressure.
Overall, high blood pressure has many unpleasant consequences and can lead to death if left uncontrolled.
What Diet Increases Risk of High Blood Pressure?
As you will see below, diets that decrease risk of high blood pressure include lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and “lean” proteins. So, a diet that is low in these foods is one that could increase risk of high blood pressure.
Essentially, a diet high in ultra-processed foods (ex. fast food, highly processed snack foods etc.) with limited whole foods could be a risk factor for high blood pressure.
These highly processed foods are often high in both fat and sodium. Sodium intakes above the daily recommended levels are often associated with high blood pressure, although genetics also seems to be a factor in who responds to a lower sodium diet (or doesn’t respond to it) 1.
Things like salty snack foods, fried foods, fast food, deli meats, fatty meats, whole fat dairy products and other very high fat/ sodium ingredients (ex. butter, creamy salad dressing) may be beneficial to limit 1, 2, 3.
What Diet Decreases Risk of High Blood Pressure?
The DASH diet is perhaps the most well-known diet for managing blood pressure. DASH stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension” (hypertension = high blood pressure). The DASH diet is well researched and there is convincing evidence that it can help lower blood pressure 4.
It’s based around eating certain amounts of foods each day with a focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans, low- or no-fat dairy, “lean meats” like poultry and fish, and some fats and oils 4.
There is also research supporting that plant-based diets, focusing on whole foods, can help prevent and/ or manage high blood pressure 5, 6, 7. Furthermore, research supports that vegetarians tend to have lower blood pressure compared to omnivores 5.
DASH Diet vs Vegan Diet to Manage High Blood Pressure
There is a lot of overlap between the DASH diet and a whole foods vegan diet. Both approaches emphasize intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
The DASH diet recommends consuming beans (legumes) 4-5 times per week whereas with a plant-based diet, legume consumption would typically be a daily occurrence, if not multiple servings per day. Research supports legumes (beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils etc.) as being beneficial for blood pressure lowering, 8 among other benefits of legumes.
A plant-based diet also wouldn’t typically include meat or fish (although there are different definitions of what a plant-based diet is). Meat consumption is typically associated with greater risk of high blood pressure, although high-quality research is lacking 9, 10. Fish intake is typically not associated with risk of high blood pressure, although some studies have found a weak association 10.
Overall it seems that limiting meat consumption would benefit high blood pressure, especially in light of the evidence that supports vegetarians and vegans have lower prevalence of high blood pressure 5, 7.
The Dairy Debate: Is Dairy Good or Bad for Blood Pressure?
There are quite a few studies that report consumption of dairy, specifically low-fat dairy, is beneficial for blood pressure 9, 11. However, when you dive into the research more, much of the beneficial effects seem to stem from nutrients in dairy such as calcium, potassium and magnesium 11. All these minerals can have an impact on blood pressure.
Eating a diet rich in calcium, potassium and magnesium from plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes), as opposed to dairy, seems to exhibit the same effect on blood pressure 11. One study put people on a high dairy, vegetable and fruit diet, compared to just a high vegetable and fruit diet with low dairy 12. Change in blood pressure was about the same in both groups 12. This suggests the dairy didn’t have any additional benefit on blood pressure beyond what the vegetables and fruits provided.
Further research has looked into specific peptides (proteins) in dairy and their impact on blood pressure 11. Many studies have not found any strong effects, even after consumption of dairy products that contain the highest concentrations of these peptides 11.
Lifestyle Changes vs Medication for Blood Pressure Management
There are lifestyle changes that are shown to help prevent and manage high blood pressure. Some of the research is really promising because it suggests that high blood pressure may be manageable without medications in certain people.
However, this is not true of everyone. Do not stop taking medication without speaking to your doctor.
If you’re diagnosed with high blood pressure, and your doctor decides that taking a pill is required, there’s a very good reason for this. If you don’t believe me, scroll back up and read about all the complications that can arise from high blood pressure.
I do believe it’s worth a conversation to discuss lifestyle changes that could help manage high blood pressure. Make sure to speak to your doctor before making these lifestyle changes as your doctor will need to monitor your blood pressure and medications throughout the process.
How to Make Lifestyle Changes Stick
Depending on the severity of the high blood pressure at diagnosis, some doctors may give patients a “trial run” to see if lifestyle changes may be effective. If you and your doctor agree lifestyle changes are a good place to start, ask for a referral to a Registered Dietitian if possible.
A Dietitian can work with you to find changes that are appropriate for your lifestyle, preferences, health history and any other relevant factors. They can be a huge help in keeping you on track, motivated and accountable to make life-long changes for your health!
Are there Changes beyond Diet that Could Help Lower High Blood Pressure?
While this page focuses on dietary changes related to blood pressure, there are many other lifestyle changes that are associated with blood pressure. Smoking, stress levels, alcohol intake and physical activity are all important to consider when looking into lifestyle changes to prevent or manage high blood pressure.
Is High Blood Pressure Curable?
Many people on the internet seem to promise a cure for various diseases and conditions including high blood pressure. Vegan diets are sometimes promoted as a cure for high blood pressure and many other diseases.
But can you actually cure high blood pressure?
The answer may depend on how you define “cure”. If curing a disease means you no longer require medication to manage it, then yes, there are dietary patterns and lifestyle changes that may allow you to eventually stop taking a blood pressure medication (do not stop taking a medication without consulting a medical doctor).
But are you cured?
I’d argue no. If you stop the lifestyle changes you’ve made, the high blood pressure would most likely come back. So really, lifestyle changes, including dietary changes, are not “curing” anything. They may just manage the condition.
Warning Against People Promising a Cure
Many people may prefer to manage health conditions without a pill, but there isn’t a “cure” for many chronic diseases. Despite what you might read on the internet, lifestyle changes are just another way to manage a disease – not cure it.
In fact, I’d highly caution you against listening to anyone who promises a cure for anything. Very few conditions can truly be cured, while most can be managed. A person promising a cure likely has a lot to gain from luring you into buying their program/ course/ book etc.
Recipes for High Blood Pressure from Lettuce Veg Out
If you and your doctor agree to try lifestyle changes to manage high blood pressure, or you’re looking for tasty recipes that fit into the dietary patterns found to help prevent high blood pressure, here is a list of some tasty vegan recipes!
Summary: Blood Pressure and a Vegan Diet
Dietary patterns high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and lean proteins are associated with lower blood pressure. In addition, vegetarians are often found to have lower blood pressure compared to omnivores. Therefore, a vegan diet that includes lots of whole foods could be an approach to prevent or manage high blood pressure. Different dietary approaches, for example the DASH diet, are commonly promoted as a way to lower blood pressure. Other lifestyle changes may also benefit prevention and management of high blood pressure.
Join the Community for Vegan Recipes
- Dietary Salt Intake and Hypertension
- Dietary Fatty Acids and the Risk of Hypertension in Middle-Aged and Older Women
- Influence of Saturated Fat and Linolenic Acid on the Association Between Intake of Dairy Products and Blood Pressure
- DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)
- Vegetarian Diets and Blood Pressure A Meta-analysis
- Cardio-Metabolic Benefits of Plant-Based Diets
- A plant-based diet and hypertension
- Eﬀect of Dietary Pulses on Blood Pressure: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Controlled Feeding Trials
- Food Groups and Risk of Hypertension: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies
- Long-term intake of animal flesh and risk of developing hypertension in three prospective cohort studies
- Milk Products, Dietary Patterns and Blood Pressure Management
- Effects of dairy products on intracellular calcium and blood pressure in adults with essential hypertension
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
Disclaimer: always speak with a doctor before changing your diet. Please read our full website disclaimer.