People who eat a vegetarian diet tend to have lower blood pressure than non-vegetarians, according to a new review of past studies.
Researchers said for some people, eating a vegetarian diet could be a good way to treat high blood pressure without medication.
Vegetarian diets exclude meat, but may include dairy products, eggs and fish in some cases. They emphasize foods of plant origin, particularly vegetables, grains, legumes and fruits.
High blood pressure contributes to a person's risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney disorders and other health problems.
The new analysis found that vegetarian diets lower blood pressure very effectively, and the evidence for this is now quite conclusive.
According to the American Heart Association, blood pressure readings under 120 mm Hg systolic and 80 mm Hg diastolic (120/80) are considered normal. High blood pressure starts at 140/90.
The new review, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, combined results from 39 previous studies, including 32 observational studies and seven controlled trials.
Observational studies show what happens when people have chosen their own diets and stuck with them, often for years. In controlled trials, participants are assigned a specific diet to follow in order to see if it has an effect on a certain health parameter.
Together the studies included close to 22,000 people.
The researchers found that in the observational studies, people who had been eating a vegetarian diet had an average systolic blood pressure that was about 7 mm Hg lower than among meat-eaters and a diastolic blood pressure that was 5 mm Hg lower.
Participants in the clinical trials who were given vegetarian diets to follow had, on average, a systolic blood pressure that was 5 mm Hg lower and a diastolic blood pressure that was 2 mm Hg lower than participants in control groups who were not on vegetarian diets.
A plant-based diet is typically low in fat and high in fibre, so it helps people lose weight, which, in turn, can reduce blood pressure.
Plant-based foods are also low in sodium and are rich in potassium, a mineral that helps lower blood pressure. People who adhere to vegetarian diets are also likely to eat fewer processed foods, the major source of dietary sodium.
These findings do not mean that people taking blood pressure medication should go off their drugs in favor of diet changes without talking to a doctor.
To learn more about adopting a plant-based diet, check out my latest book, The Plant-Based Power Diet.
Source: JAMA Internal Medicine, online February 24, 2014.
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