Eating more plant foods may lower heart disease risk in older women

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Eating a plant-centred diet during young adulthood is associated with a lower risk of heart disease in middle age, according to a long-term study with about 30 years of follow-up. A separate study with about 15 years of follow-up found that eating more plant-based foods that have been shown to lower cholesterol, called the ‘Portfolio Diet’, is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women.

In two separate studies analysing different measures of healthy plant food consumption, researchers found that both young adults and postmenopausal women had fewer heart attacks and were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease when they ate more healthy plant foods.

The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations suggest an overall healthy dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes and non-tropical vegetable oils. It also advises limited consumption of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets and sugary drinks.

One study, titled “A Plant-Centred Diet and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease during Young to Middle Adulthood,” evaluated whether long-term consumption of a plant-centred diet and a shift toward a plant-centred diet starting in young adulthood are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in midlife.

“Earlier research was focused on single nutrients or single foods, yet there is little data about a plant-centred diet and the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Yuni Choi, Ph.D., lead author of the young adult study and a postdoctoral researcher in the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.

Choi and colleagues examined diet and the occurrence of heart disease in 4,946 adults enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. Participants were 18- to 30-years-old at the time of enrolment (1985-1986) in this study and were free of cardiovascular disease at that time. Participants included 2,509 Black adults and 2,437 white adults (54.9 per cent women overall) who were also analysed by education level (equivalent to more than high school vs. high school or less). Participants had eight follow-up exams from 1987-88 to 2015-16 that included lab tests, physical measurements, medical histories and assessment of lifestyle factors. Unlike randomized controlled trials, participants were not instructed to eat certain things and were not told their scores on the diet measures, so the researchers could collect unbiased, long-term habitual diet data.

After detailed diet history interviews, the quality of the participants diets was scored based on the A Priori Diet Quality Score (APDQS) composed of 46 food groups at years 0, 7 and 20 of the study. The food groups were classified into beneficial foods (such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains); adverse foods (such as fried potatoes, high-fat red meat, salty snacks, pastries and soft drinks); and neutral foods (such as potatoes, refined grains, lean meats and shellfish) based on their known association with cardiovascular disease.

Participants who received higher scores ate a variety of beneficial foods, while people who had lower scores ate more adverse foods. Overall, higher values correspond to a nutritionally rich, plant-centred diet.

“As opposed to existing diet quality scores that are usually based on small numbers of food groups, APDQS is explicit in capturing the overall quality of diet using 46 individual food groups, describing the whole diet that the general population commonly consumes. Our scoring is very comprehensive, and it has many similarities with diets like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Healthy Eating Index (from the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service), the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the Mediterranean diet,” said David E. Jacobs Jr., Ph.D., senior author of the study and Mayo Professor of Public Health in the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.


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Deirdre Tynan

Deirdre Tynan is an award-winning journalist who enjoys bringing the best in news reporting to Spain’s largest English-language newspaper, Euro Weekly News. She has previously worked at The Mirror, Ireland on Sunday and for news agencies, media outlets and international organisations in America, Europe and Asia. A huge fan of British politics and newspapers, Deirdre is equally fascinated by the political scene in Madrid and Sevilla. She moved to Spain in 2018 and is based in Jaen.

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