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Here’s some news we should all take to heart: According to the CDC, nearly half of adults in the United States have hypertension, a condition where blood flow is restricted. And over time, high blood pressure increases your risk for heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the country. That means it’s almost guaranteed you or someone you know is impacted by blood pressure numbers that are in the red zone.
Regular bouts of exercise, avoiding smoking, managing stress and going easy on alcohol are all good places to start if you need to keep blood pressure numbers from spiking. And science shows there are several dietary measures you can take as well to lower your risk for hypertension. This includes embracing the cooking and eating ethos of those living in Greece, Spain and Italy where the health-hiking, blood pressure controlling proof is in the pudding (or shall we say the tapenade).
In a recent randomized crossover trial published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 62 overweight adults were assigned to follow a Mediterranean or low-fat vegan diet for a four-month period to test the diets’ impacts on several health measures, including blood lipids, insulin resistance and blood pressure. After going back to their normal diets for four weeks, each participant then followed the other diet for another four months.
While the vegan diet was found to be more impactful concerning weight loss, insulin sensitivity and blood cholesterol numbers, it was the Mediterranean diet that performed better with respect to lowering blood pressure numbers. And, for many people, adhering to a less restrictive Med-style way of eating is more appealing than a vegan diet with low levels of fat.
This isn’t the only evidence linking the Mediterranean diet with better blood pressure control, both in people with and without hypertension. If you’re hoping to improve your heart health and keep your blood pressure under control, here’s what you need to know.
Why the Mediterranean diet is so great for blood pressure control
Among the plethora of diet regimens you can choose from, the Mediterranean diet has garnered the most widespread praise among health professionals. Recently, the Mediterranean diet was even ranked number one for best overall diet of 2021 by U.S. News and World Report. In truth, the Mediterranean diet is less of a diet and more of an eating lifestyle without any strict calorie or macronutrient guidelines (yes, you can eat your carbs). There’s little focus placed on counting calories – diet quality matters most. Its hallmark is eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, herbs, whole grains, olive oil, fish, nuts and legumes, while reining in the intake of red meat, refined grains and ultra-processed packaged foods typical of the standard American diet and, can most certainly, drive up blood pressure numbers.
The upshot is the traditional Mediterranean diet is abundant in several nutrition elements that can benefit our blood pressure. For instance, a study in the journal Hypertension found that people who ate more foods rich in flavonoids, bioactive compounds found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables as well as red wine, had lower systolic blood pressure compared with those who ate few flavonoid-rich foods.
Interestingly, the pressure-lowering efficacy may have something to do with the positive role that flavonoids have on our microbiome. An international team of researchers linked adhering to a healthy plant-based diet index to lower blood pressure, with a reverse relationship for eating an unhealthy plant-based diet index. Eating less meat and more vegetables and whole grains was associated with lower blood pressure while refined grains, sugar-sweetened beverages and meat were linked to higher numbers. This whole-food approach to plant-heavy eating is typical of the Mediterranean diet.
And we all know that discerning palates in France and Italy are quick to enjoy a good cheese. An investigation in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care found that the consumption of at least two to three daily servings of dairy was associated with an 11 to 14 percent reduced risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, with a stronger association seen for full-fat dairy than low-fat dairy. So, yes, it appears a wedge or two of Camembert or Comté can be part of a heart-healthy diet.
Of course, we would be remiss without mentioning the Mediterranean stalwart olive oil, whose combination of monounsaturated fat and polyphenols may help keep blood pressure numbers in the safe range.
It’s also worth noting that in Mediterranean countries, mealtime has historically been a social affair – a time to break bread, if you will. Since forging social bonds is important in helping alleviate stress and feelings of loneliness, this aspect of the eating style could be another way it helps bolster cardiovascular health. In contrast, so many Americans have now become accustomed to mindlessly shoveling in their food while fixating on their digital feed.
The Med diet has health benefits beyond blood pressure too
There is more proof that the often-touted Mediterranean diet is a universal way to eat healthier. There have been many studies on the Mediterranean diet that show it may have a positive impact on cognitive function, depression, diabetes risk, and perhaps weight loss efforts.
Beyond the health perks, this dietary approach might just help you live longer. A study in BMJ even found that women with a greater adherence to this eating pattern had longer telomeres, a biomarker of healthier aging. Telomeres are DNA sequences that get shorter each time a cell in your body divides. Shorter telomeres are associated with a decreased life expectancy and higher incidence of age-related chronic diseases. Eating a Mediterranean diet appears to prevent them from shrinking faster than they should so you have a greater chance of enjoying more birthdays. Is it too premature to call the diet the fountain of youth?
How to eat like they do in the Mediterranean
You don’t need to move to Tuscany or a sunny Greek isle (although that would be awesome!) to reap the life-prolonging perks of the Mediterranean diet. You can eat like an Italian grandma while sticking closer to home by simply loading up your grocery cart with these Mediterranean-inspired staples.
- Walnuts: A top-notch source of ticker-friendly omega-3 fat
- Canned sardines: They might be small, but they’re a mighty source of mega-healthy fats, protein and vitamin D
- Cherries: Chock-full of age-avenging antioxidants
- Chickpeas: An easy way to load up on plant protein and hunger-fighting fiber
- Fresh mozzarella: More moisture than hard cheese means fewer calories
- Parsley: Adds punchy flavor to meals for very minimal calories or the need to use the salt shaker like a hammer
- Mackerel: Fatty in a good way, this swimmer harbors a boatload of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats.
- Spinach: Provides immune-boosting vitamin A and vitamin C
- Tomatoes: Source of the anti-cancer, heart-protecting antioxidant lycopene
- Farro: A whole grain with chewy texture and healthy amounts of fiber for better blood sugar control.
Need even more reasons beyond blood pressure to try the Mediterranean diet? Keep reading:
- The Mediterranean Diet Can Make You Smarter – Here’s How to Reap All the Brain Benefits
- Can the Mediterranean Diet Prevent Aging?
- The Mediterranean Diet Could Help You Sleep Better
Featured recipe: Mediterranean Shrimp & Farro Pilaf