Plant-based diets may help protect against common, stealthy condition

If you've been looking for a good reason to change your diet, a new study out of Georgia may provide it. According to the researchers, eating a plant-based diet may help protect against a common condition that often goes undetected for too long: high blood pressure. As well, the study also found evidence that this kind of diet may also help protect against preeclampsia, which can be deadly.

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is a common condition that impacts around half of the US. Generally speaking, one's blood pressure is considered high when the systolic pressure is greater than 130mm Hg and/or the diastolic pressure is greater than 80mm Hg. Hypertension can be the result of genetics in some people, while others may develop it due to poor lifestyle choices.

Two new studies were recently published on the topic that provides evidence diet can modify gut microbiota and that positive changes to that gut bacteria can help protect one's long-term health. When it comes to high blood pressure, the study involved rodents who were bred to be genetically prone to hypertension when fed a diet high in salt.

Surprise discovery

A surprising observation involving these rats years ago led to the realization that salt alone doesn't increase blood pressure in genetically vulnerable rats. Way back in 2001, some of these rats were shared by the Medical College of Wisconsin with researchers at Charles River Laboratories. The rats in Wisconsin were fed a milk-based diet, while the rats shipped to the lab were switched to a grain-based diet.

As it turns out, the rats shipped to Charles Rivers Laboratories didn't develop as severe of high blood pressure and kidney damage when fed high amounts of salt as their peers that remained in Wisconsin. This unanticipated presentation kicked off years of research that found animal protein can amplify the impact of salt in a person's diet, at least when it comes to blood pressure.

Role of gut bacteria

The scientists found that despite having essentially the same genetics, these two rat colonies had different gut microbiomes that reflected the different impacts of high-salt diets in the rodents. The key difference between the two is that one set of rats were fed an animal protein-based diet and the others were fed a plant-based diet.

Additional research on the topic is planned, but the findings underscore a growing body of research linking plant-based diets with a number of health benefits. The study notes that when it comes to heart disease, high blood pressure is the largest risk factor that can be modified — and changing one's diet remains a key way to reduce one's hypertension risk.