By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Dec. 5, 2012 — It’s never too late to start reaping the benefits of a heart-healthy diet.
A new study shows older people with established heart disease who ate the most heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts had a much lower risk of dying or having another heart attack or stroke than those who ate the unhealthiest diet.
The study shows people who ate the most heart-healthy diet had a:
- 35% lower risk of heart or stroke-related death
- 14% lower risk of heart attack
- 28% lower risk of heart failure
- 19% lower risk of stroke
“It doesn’t matter what type of medication you take, if you follow a healthy diet you will get benefits,” says researcher Mahshid Dehghan, PhD, research associate at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. “Eating fruits and vegetables substantially reduces cardiovascular disease recurrence over and above medication alone.”
Researchers say it’s the first large, international study to show eating a heart-healthy diet can help prevent another heart attack and stroke in people already on medications to treat high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels.
Healthy Diet Better Than Drugs Alone
The study followed 31,546 adults ages 55 and older in 14 countries who were enrolled in two separate clinical trials of blood pressure-lowering medications. All of the people had a history of heart disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease, or diabetes with organ damage. All of them were considered at high risk for heart attack, stroke, or other heart-related complication.
Researchers asked them about how often they ate foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, fish, meat, poultry, and dairy products in the past 12 months.
Diets were given an overall heart-healthy score based on how frequently people ate healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Higher scores were also given to diets that included a higher amount of fish relative to meat, poultry, and eggs and those that included whole grains and fewer deep-fried foods.
During nearly five years of follow-up, 5,190 heart- or stroke-related problems were reported in the study.
The results showed those who ate the most heart-healthy diets had lower risk of heart disease, stroke, or death due to either condition compared to those who ate the most unhealthy diets, regardless of the type or combination of heart medications they took or their nationality, income level, age, or other heart disease risk factors.
Experts say many studies have already proven the benefits of eating a heart-healthy diet in preventing heart disease in healthy people.
But this study is noteworthy because it is the first major, international study to show heart-healthy diets also benefit those who are already on medication for existing heart disease.
Heart-Healthy Diet Changes
Dehghan says many people with heart disease may be under the mistaken impression that taking their medication is enough to reduce their risk.
“Both patients and physicians, but especially patients, think that if they are taking medication to lower their blood pressure or cholesterol that there is no need to modify their diet because it’s taken care of by medication,” Dehghan says. “There hasn’t been enough emphasis on the effect of diet.”
Registered dietitian Angela Ginn says many older people with heart disease think it’s too late or too hard to change their diet.
“Often people have old habits of eating certain ways and think, ‘what is the use of change?'” says Ginn, of the University of Maryland Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology. “But this study shows even changing at a later age can have an impact.”
Ginn says making small changes and substitutions can add up to big benefits in reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke. For example:
- Incorporate more whole grains by swapping out cereals like corn flakes for whole-grain cereals with at least 5 grams of fiber.
- Replace sticks of butter with other spreads made with olive oil, canola oil, or other monounsaturated fats.
- Let fruits and vegetables take up half of the plate at mealtimes.
- Eat fish at least twice a week.
- Instead of salt at the table, add an herb or spice for seasoning.
“This study encourages more people to think about changing eating habits instead of thinking, ‘I can take a pill and be fine.'” Ginn says. “Why not think about food first, it not only impacts your heart but how you feel about yourself.”
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