Features May 2014 Issue

Vegetarian Diet May Help Lower Blood Pressure

But keeping meat off your plate isn’t a guarantee of blood-pressure control and weight loss. Your diet still needs to focus on nutrient-rich foods.

Adults who consume a vegetarian diet tend to have lower blood pressure than non-vegetarians, according to a recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine. There may be several explanations for this relationship, the researchers noted. For example, vegetarians tend to have a lower body-mass index (BMI) than those who eat meat. A high BMI, which is a measure of the body’s shape using a formula that includes a person’s height and weight, is associated with higher risks of hypertension and heart disease.

A vegetarian diet may help lower your blood pressure and your weight. But you still need to be smart about your meatless meals.

Researchers also suggested that vegetarians tend to consume less sodium, alcohol and saturated fats—all of which are risk factors for high blood pressure.

“A vegetarian diet has been shown to be beneficial when it comes to management and prevention of several conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity and high blood pressure,” says Julia Renee Zumpano, RD, LD, a dietitian in Preventive Cardiology at Cleveland Clinic.

She adds that heart patients can enjoy multiple benefits from a vegetarian diet, but that there are some misconceptions that many people have when it comes to a meatless diet.
Making vegetarianism work

Zumpano says that one of the biggest concerns people have about a vegetarian diet is that they won’t be able to meet their protein needs without meat.

“You certainly can get enough protein as a vegetarian,” she explains. “You just have to be aware of protein sources, and get in some protein with each meal. Some non-meat protein sources include eggs or egg whites, yogurt or milk, soy milk, cottage cheese, tofu, beans, quinoa, and veggie burgers and hot dogs.”

But Zumpano acknowledges the challenges of going vegetarian, especially if your family and social network have different eating styles.

“It can be challenging in a social setting or eating out,” she says. “Also, if the rest of the family eats meat, it can mean more work for the cook.”

Zumpano also warns that plenty of unhealthy foods, such as French fries and potato chips, are vegetarian, but are hardly recommended as heart-healthy options.

“Although it can be commonly misconceived that all vegetarian foods are ‘healthy,’ they are not,” she says. “A registered dietitian can devise a plan that is specific for you, meeting your nutrition needs, controlling your weight, and managing and preventing disease.”

Eating for your heart
So what should you eat on a vegetarian diet designed to lower blood pressure? Well, leafy greens such as spinach, are recommended, as are high-fiber foods, such as beans and fruit. Zumpano adds that a key element of a diet aimed at controlling hypertension is that it’s low in saturated fat, the kind primarily found in meat and dairy. Low-fat or fat-free dairy is recommended.

For anyone interested in transitioning to a vegetarian diet, Zumpano recommends starting with one meatless meal per week or one meatless day per week.

“Then continue to expand as you are feeling comfortable,” she says. “Easy meatless meals include vegetarian/bean soup, bean burrito, veggie wrap with hummus, salad with beans, veggie burger, pasta primavera, veggie lasagna, veggie stir fry with tofu, and a peanut butter and banana sandwich.”

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