ATLANTA – Nearly half of Americans have high blood pressure, which puts them at increased risk for heart disease and stroke.

But new research in Georgia could save their lives and the lives of pregnant women. The researchers found that a slight change in diet could make a big difference.

“Yes, we were really excited. “We were on the moon and could not wait,” said Barclay Lyles.

She and her husband George are new parents.

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Their son Cole was born healthy, but Barclay had serious pregnancy complications.

“We went one day and my blood pressure was checked as usual. And they checked it three times. And they noticed that he kept getting up and nothing was lowering him, “Barclay Lyles said.

She had preeclampsia, a condition that causes pregnant women to develop dangerously high blood pressure that can cause their feet and hands to swell. It can also lead to liver and kidney damage.

“It was definitely one of the hardest things to do to see him so stressed. “And as she said, it’s hard not to get stressed when you’re going through it,” said her husband George.

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After Cole was born, they thought things would improve. But a day after the birth, Barclay returned urgently to the hospital.

“All I wanted to do was enjoy my baby. “And I could not do that because I had to worry if I had some kind of convulsion from this preeclampsia that has not gone away,” said Barclay Lyles.

It took six weeks before she returned to normal and was not treated.

“Making it clear to give up treatment was the best thing ever. “I felt like I could finally enjoy my baby,” said Barclay Lyles.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says preeclampsia occurs in about one in 25 pregnancies in the US. She says high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, affects about 116 million Americans. Hypertension increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, which are the two leading causes of death in the US

But the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University may have found some progress to help reduce the risk.

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“This is what we found,” said Dr. David Mattson, chair of physiology at the Medical College of Georgia.

For years everyone thought that salt was the main cause of high blood pressure. But the team of Dr. Matteson found in mice that foods rich in animal proteins such as meat and cheese may play a key role in the development of hypertension.

“An animal-based protein seemed to have a pro-disease or hypertensive effect,” Mattson said.

He said salt-rich diets also cause problems. But when they fed the rats a plant-based diet, it did not matter if it was high in salt or low, the hypertension went down.

“They have a mitigation of hypertension and kidney damage, so they put an end to organ disease and actually live longer,” Matteson said.

The researchers said Channel Action News 2 the findings have influenced their food choices.

“I stay away from salt as much as I can and I have definitely increased my consumption of vegetables as well,” said Dr. John Henry Dasinger, a postdoctoral student at the Medical College of Georgia.

And you do not need to go vegan or vegetarian to see the benefits. Just adding more plant-based foods helps.

“I will not say that I have completely eliminated animal-based proteins, but I have definitely become more aware of this, to make sure that my meals are much more balanced,” said Dr. Justine Abais-Battad, a physiologist at the Medical College of Georgia.

Barclay Lyles said she loves meat and would not leave it, but she is willing to eat more fruits and vegetables.

“Adding more fruit to your diet is not really a bad thing at all,” she said.

The researchers said that if you are pregnant or trying to conceive, talk to your doctor about your diet. But they recommend adding extra servings of fruits and vegetables.

They said there could be long-term health benefits for mother and baby.

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