Any form of healthy eating over several decades can lower the risk of heart disease by up to a fifth, according to a new study.
Using data gathered over the course of more than 30 years, US researchers found it is not necessary to conform to a single diet to achieve healthy eating.
Study participants who had adhered to any of four different dietary plans had up to a 21 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who hadn’t.
The study of around 200,000 people showed that following a range of healthy eating patterns may lower your risk of heart disease.
These include plant-based diets that include vegetarian substitutes for popular meat products, and the ‘Mediterranean diet’, which is rich in vegetables, fish and olive oil.
Researchers highlight the importance of a varied diet plan to prevent cardiovascular disease, which they say is the primary cause of death both in the US and worldwide.
A US study conducted over 32 years suggests that it is not necessary to conform to a single diet to achieve healthy eating, and that following a range of healthy eating patterns may lower your risk of heart disease. Recommended healthy diets all share several components, including higher intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts
‘There is no one-size-fits-all diet that is best for everyone,’ said corresponding author Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
‘One can combine foods in a variety of flexible ways to achieve healthy eating patterns according to individuals’ health needs, food preferences and cultural traditions.’
Few studies have examined how adhering to recommended healthy eating patterns influence long-term risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), a term that covers multiple conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels.
The traditional Mediterranean diet includes lots of vegetables, fruits, beans, and is abundant in healthy fats like olive oil (pictured)
THE FOUR HEALTHY EATING DIET PATTERNS
Researchers examined the associations of dietary scores for the following healthy eating patterns with risk of cardiovascular disease:
Healthy Eating Index-2015 (HEI-2015) uses a scoring system to evaluate a variety of foods ranging from 0 to 100.
It’s a measure of diet quality used to assess how well a set of foods aligns with key recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Alternate Mediterranean Diet Score (AMED) provides a score based on intake of specific foods associated with diets in the Med – incluidng vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish and oils.
Healthful Plant-Based Diet Index (HPDI) rates healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits/vegetables, nuts/legumes, oils) and less-healthy plant foods (juices/sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes/fries).
Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) was created in 2002 as an alternative to the HEI and is based on foods and nutrients predictive of chronic disease risk.
AHEI stresses the quality of foods we eat is more important than the percentages of macronutrients themselves.
CVD is usually associated with a build-up of fatty deposits inside the arteries and an increased risk of blood clots, and has been linked with damage to arteries in organs such as the brain, heart, kidneys and eyes.
For this study, the US research team focused on dietary scores for four healthy eating patterns, developed and recommended by experts – Healthy Eating Index-2015 (HEI-2015), Alternate Mediterranean Diet Score (AMED), Healthful Plant-Based Diet Index (HPDI) and Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI).
Despite different scoring methods, each emphasises higher intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts, and lower intake of red and processed meats and sugar-sweetened beverages such as Coca Cola.
To assess the associations of each pattern with CVD risk, the researchers looked at data from thousands of men and women taking part in Harvard research programmes that investigate risk factors for major chronic diseases.
The sample comprised 74,930 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study, which began in the 1970s, as well as 90,864 women in the Nurses’ Health Study II, and 43,339 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, which both started in the 1980s.
Participants in each were asked every two to four years about their dietary habits, including how often, on average, they consumed a standard portion size of various foods.
Using the dietary data, which was collected over decades through questionnaires, the researchers created four dietary scores for each participant, with higher scores representing greater adherence to healthy eating patterns.
After adjusting for factors including age, body mass index and smoking status, the analysis found that greater adherence to any of the healthy eating patterns was consistently associated with lower risk of CVD.
Changes to one’s diet are one of the most important strategies for prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD), the primary cause of death in the United States and worldwide
Participants who adhered most to healthy eating patterns – those in the top quarter of the scores – had a 14 per cent to 21 per cent lower risk of CVD when compared with those who adhered least, in the bottom quarter.
Healthy eating patterns were effective at lowering CVD risk across racial and ethnic groups and were also associated with lower risk of both coronary heart disease and stroke.
‘These data provide further evidence to support current dietary guidelines that following healthy eating patterns confers long-term health benefits on cardiovascular disease prevention,’ said Professor Hu.
The findings support the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend multiple healthy eating patterns for individuals to adapt, according to their personal food traditions and preferences.
The study has been published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
EXPLAINED: THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET
Consuming more fruit and fish, and fewer sugary drinks and snacks, are the most important aspects of a Mediterranean diet.
Fish and meat
Monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil
Saturated fats, like butter
Processed foods, like juice and white bread
A glass of red wine here and there is fine
How you can follow it:
Eat more fish
Squeeze more fruit & veg into every meal
Swap your sunflower oil or butter for extra virgin olive oil
Snack on nuts
Eat fruit for dessert