How Not to Die from High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is the number-one risk factor for death in the world. In the United States, it affects nearly 78 million people, one in three adults. As we age, our blood pressures get higher and higher, such that by age 60, high blood pressure strikes more than half of us.

Given that it affects most of us when we get older, could high blood pressure be less a disease and more just an inevitable consequence of aging? No. We’ve known since the 1920s that high blood pressure need not occur, which I discuss in my video How Not to Die from High Blood Pressure.

Researchers measured the blood pressures of a thousand people in rural Kenya, where their traditional diet included more whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, and dark leafy greens. Though our pressures go up as we age, their pressures actually go down.

With blood pressure, the lower, the better. The 140/90 cut-off you may have heard here or there is arbitrary. Even people who start out with blood pressures under 120/80 appear to benefit from blood pressure reduction. Your doctor would likely give you a gold star if you had a blood pressure of 120/80, but research indicates the ideal blood pressure—blood pressure that wouldn’t get benefit from being any lower—may actually be 110/70.

Is it even possible to get blood pressures as low as 110/70? It’s not just possible—it’s normal for those living healthy enough lives.

Over two years, 1,800 patients were admitted to a rural Kenyan hospital. How many cases of high blood pressure were found? Zero. Wow they must have had low rates of heart disease. No, in fact, they had no rates of heart disease. Not a single case of our number-one killer, arteriosclerosis, was found. Rural China, too. There, people are about 110/70 their entire lives—70-year-olds with the same average blood pressure as 16-year-olds.

Those in Asia and Africa traditionally eat vastly different diets, but they do share a commonality: Both were plant-based day-to-day, with meat eaten only on special occasions. Why do we think it’s the plant-based nature of their diets that was so protective? Because in the Western world, as the American Heart Association has pointed out, the only people getting their blood pressures down that low were those eating strictly plant-based diets, coming in around 110/65.

The largest study to date of people eating plant-based diets studied 89,000 Californians. Non-vegetarians were compared to semi-vegetarians (also called flexitarians, those who eat meat more on a weekly rather than daily basis), pesco-vegetarians (those who eat no meat except fish), lacto-ovo-vegetarians (those who eat no meat at all), and vegans (who eat no meat, eggs, or dairy).

The subjects were Seventh-day Adventists, who all tended to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, exercise, and not smoke, and even the nonvegetarians didn’t eat a lot of meat. So, even compared to a group of relatively healthy meat-eaters, there appeared to be a step-wise drop in hypertension rates as people ate more and more plant-based diets, with vegans having lower rates than lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who had lower rates than pesco-vegetarians, and so on—and the researchers found the same for diabetes and obesity.

So, yes: We can wipe out most of our risk by eating a strictly plant-based diet, but it’s not all-or-nothing. It isn’t black-or-white. Any movement we can make along the spectrum towards healthier eating can accrue significant health benefits.

This can be shown experimentally: Give vegetarians some meat (and pay them enough to eat it), and their blood pressures go up. In another study, meat was removed from people’s diets, and their blood pressures went down—and did so in only seven days. What’s more, this was after the vast majority had reduced or even stopped their blood pressure medications completely. Indeed, the subjects had to stop their medications because once you treat the cause, you can’t be on multiple blood pressure pills with normal blood pressure. Your pressures could fall too low and you could get dizzy, fall, and hurt yourself, so your doctor has to take you off the pills. Lower blood pressures on fewer drugs—that’s the power of plants.

So, does the American Heart Association recommend a no-meat diet? No, it recommends a low-meat diet, known as Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or the DASH diet. Why wouldn’t the AHA recommend a completely plant-based diet? When the DASH diet was being created, were they just not aware of this landmark research, done by Harvard’s Frank Sacks showing those who eat strictly plant-based average 110/65? No, they were aware. The Chair of the Design Committee that came up with the DASH diet was Frank Sacks.

As he described, the DASH diet was designed explicitly with the number-one goal of capturing “the blood pressure-lowering benefits of a vegetarian diet, yet contain enough animal products to make them palatable” to the general population. They didn’t think the public could handle the truth.

In their defense, just as drugs don’t work unless you actually take them, diets don’t work unless you actually eat them. So, maybe they thought few would eat strictly plant-based, so by soft-peddling the message, by coming up with a kind of compromise diet perhaps on a population scale they felt it would do more good. Fine, but tell that to the thousand American families who lose a loved one every day to high blood pressure.

Maybe it’s time to start telling the American public the truth.

The first time someone visits can be overwhelming. With videos on more than 2,000 health topics, where do you even begin? Imagine stumbling onto the site not knowing what to expect and the new video-of-the-day is about how a particular spice can be effective in treating a particular form of arthritis. It would be easy to miss the forest for the trees, which is precisely why I created a series of overview videos that are essentially taken straight from my live, hour-long 2016 presentation How Not to Die: Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

The other videos in this overview series are:

Inspired to learn more about the role diet may play in preventing and treating high blood pressure? Check out these other popular videos on the topic:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Do DHA Supplements Improve Brain Function?

The concept of vitamins was first described by none other than Dr. Funk. In his landmark paper in 1912, he discussed the notion that there were complex compounds our body couldn’t make from scratch, so we had to get them from our diet. By the mid-20th century, all the vitamins had been discovered and isolated, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that we realized that certain fats were essential, too.

In 1929, the necessity for fat was definitively settled… “in the diet (of the rat),” but when one of the researchers tried a 99 percent fat-free diet on himself for six months, ironically, he felt better. His high blood pressure went away, he felt more energetic, and his migraines disappeared. This one-man experiment “fortif[ied] the medical profession’s doubt that essential fatty acids had any relevance to humans,” until TPN—Total Parenteral Nutrition, meaning feeding someone exclusively through an IV—was developed in the 1960s. TPN was initially developed for babies born without working intestines. Because we didn’t think humans needed fat, “the first preparations were fat free, and they rapidly induced severe EFA [essential fatty acid] deficiencies, ultimately convincing the medical community” that some fats are indeed essential. They started out using safflower oil, but, as they discovered in a young girl given the oil after an abdominal gunshot wound, we don’t just need fat—we need specific fats like omega-3s. So, when they switched from safflower oil to soybean oil, she was restored to normal.

The fact it took so long and under such extreme circumstances to demonstrate the essential nature of omega-3s illustrates how hard it is to develop overt omega-3 deficiency. Of course, the amount required to avoid deficiency is not necessarily the optimal amount for health. The vitamin C in a spoonful of orange juice would be enough to avoid scurvy (the overt vitamin C deficiency disease), but no one considers that enough vitamin C for optimal health.

As I discuss in my video Should We Take DHA Supplements to Boost Brain Function?, what would optimal omega-3 status look like? Well, doubt has been cast on its role in heart health (see Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?), which appears to have been based on a faulty premise in the first place (see Omega-3s and the Eskimo Fish Tale), so taking extra omega-3s for our heart might not make any sense (see Should We Take EPA and DHA Omega-3 for Our Heart?). But what about for our baby’s brain (see Should Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women Take DHA?)? Extra DHA may not help pregnant or breast-feeding fish-eaters, but those who want to avoid the contaminants in fishes can take supplements of pollutant-free algae oil to get the best of both worlds for their babies (see Should Vegan Women Supplement with DHA During Pregnancy?). What about adults? There doesn’t appear to be any apparent psychological (see Fish Consumption and Suicide) or neurological (see Is Fish “Brain Food” for Older Adults?) benefit of DHA supplementation for the general public, but what about in those who don’t eat fish?

The famous Alpha Omega Trial randomized thousands of people over three years to get either long-chain omega-3s from fish, short-chain omega-3s from plants, or placebo. The result? The study found no significant benefits for any kind of omega-3 supplementation on global cognitive decline. However, most of the subjects were eating fish, thereby already getting pre-formed DHA in their diets. General population studies like this, that find no benefit, can’t fully inform us about the role of DHA in brain health. It would be akin to giving half these people oranges, finding no difference in scurvy rates (zero in both groups), and concluding vitamin C plays no role in scurvy.

In 2013, for the first time, DHA supplementation was found to improve memory and reaction time among young adults who rarely ate fish. Previous randomized, controlled trials failed to find such a benefit among18- to 45-year-olds, but they only lasted a few months at most, whereas the 2013 study lasted for six months. If all the studies showed either no effect or a positive effect, one might give it a try. But in one of those shorter trials, DHA supplementation didn’t just fail to show benefit—it appeared to make things worse. After 50 days, those who consumed the DHA had worse memory than those taking the placebo. So, out of the six randomized controlled trials for DHA supplementation, four showed nothing, one showed a benefit, and one showed a harm. If it were just about boosting brain function in the short term, I’d err on the side of caution and spend my money elsewhere.

What about the long term though? See Should Vegans Take DHA to Preserve Brain Function?.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:


The Healthiest Way to Eat Paleo

There have been about a half dozen studies published on Paleo-type diets, starting around 20 years ago. For example, in what sounds like a reality TV show: ten diabetic Australian Aborigines were dropped off in a remote location to fend for themselves, hunting and gathering foods like figs and crocodiles.

In Modern Meat Not Ahead of the Game, my video on wild game, I showed that kangaroo meat causes a significantly smaller spike of inflammation compared to retail meat like beef. Of course, ideally we’d eat anti-inflammatory foods, but wild game is so low in fat that you can design a game-based diet with under 7 percent of calories from fat. Skinless chicken breast, in comparison, has 14 times more fat than kangaroo meat. So you can eat curried kangaroo with your cantaloupe (as they did in the study) and drop your cholesterol almost as much as eating vegetarian.

So, how did the “contestants” do? Well, nearly anything would have been preferable to the diet they were eating before, which was centered on refined carbs, soda, beer, milk, and cheap fatty meat. They did pretty well, though, showing a significantly better blood sugar response—but it was due to a ton of weight loss because they were starving. Evidently, they couldn’t catch enough kangaroos, so even if they had been running around the desert for seven weeks on 1,200 daily calories of their original junky diet, they may have done just as well. We’ll never know, though, because there was no control group.

Some of the other Paleo studies have the same problem: They’re small and short with no control groups, yet still report favorable results. The findings of one such study are no surprise, given that subjects cut their saturated fat intake in half, presumably because they cut out so much cheese, sausage, or ice cream. In another study, nine people went Paleo for ten days. They halved their saturated fat and salt intake, and, as one might expect, their cholesterol and blood pressure dropped.

The longest Paleo study had been only 3 months in duration, until a 15-month study was conducted—but it was done on pigs. The pigs did better because they gained less weight on the Paleo diet. Why? Because they fed the Paleo group 20 percent fewer calories. The improvement in insulin sensitivity in pigs was not reproduced in a study on people, however. Although, there were some benefits like improved glucose tolerance, thanks to these dietary changes: The Paleo group ate less dairy, cereals, oil, and margarine, and ate more fruits and nuts, with no significant change in meat consumption.

A follow-up study also failed to find improved glucose tolerance in the Paleo group over the control group, but did show other risk factor benefits. And no wonder! Any diet cutting out dairy, doughnuts, oil, sugar, candy, soda, beer, and salt is likely to make people healthier and feel better. In my video Paleo Diet Studies Show Benefits, you can see a day’s worth of food on the Standard American Diet, filled with pizza, soda, burgers, processed foods, and sweets, versus a Paleo diet, which, surprisingly, has lots of foods that actually grew out of the ground.

But the Paleo diet also prohibits beans. Should we really be telling people to stop eating beans? Well, it seems hardly anyone eats them anyway. Only about 1 in 200 middle-aged American women get enough, with more than 96 percent of Americans not even reaching the minimum recommended amount. So telling people to stop isn’t going to change their diet very much. I’m all for condemning the Standard American Diet’s refined carbs, “nonhuman mammalian milk”, and junk foods, but proscribing legumes is a mistake. As I’ve noted before, beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils may be the most important dietary predictor of survival. Beans and whole grains are the dietary cornerstones of the longest living populations on Earth. Plant-based diets in general and legumes in particular are a common thread among longevity blue zones around the world.

The bottom line may be that reaching for a serving of kangaroo may be better than a cheese danish, “but foraging for…[an] apple might prove to be the most therapeutic of all.”

I’ve reported previously on Paleo’s disappointing results in Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise.

The underlying philosophy behind “caveman” diets may be flawed in the first place. See:

So, What’s the Natural Human Diet? Watch the video!

The wild game video I mentioned is Modern Meat Not Ahead of the Game. Kangaroo is kind of the Australian version of venison. Note that it also matters how the animals are killed. See Filled Full of Lead and Lead Contamination in Fish and Game.

And, for more on the musical fruit, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: