Chalk Another One Up For Heart Healthy Diets
Aug. 21, 2000 (Washington) -- Eating right can lower the level
of a potentially dangerous chemical in your blood, according to new research.
If that sounds familiar, there's a twist to what may sound like an old story.
In this case, the compound is homocysteine, an amino acid that is believed to
increase your chances of getting a heart attack and stroke.
The three-month dietary study done by researchers at Johns
Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore was aimed at comparing the relatively
high-fat American diet with healthier alternatives. Those on the so-called
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) program, with its emphasis on
fruits and vegetables as well as low-fat dairy, wound up the big winners with
what might be expected to be a seven to nine percent lower risk of heart
"It's really one of the first studies that shows you can do
it through foods alone," researcher Edgar Miller III, MD, PhD, tells WebMD.
Miller, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, says that taking
dietary supplements are traditional ways of boosting folate and other nutrients
that are natural enemies of homocysteine.
However, those who got the DASH diet actually received a folate
boost of nearly double that in the higher-fat alternative. The DASH program was
originally aimed at reducing high blood pressure.
"You should follow [the DASH diet], because number one, it
will lower your blood pressure. Number two, it's good for your [total
cholesterol] and number three, it will lower your homocysteine," Eva
Obarzanek, PhD. of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), tells
The NHLBI funded the study as part of a larger investigation of
diet and heart disease risk. The current findings are published in the Aug. 22
issue of the journal Circulation. During the past decade, physicians
have become more concerned about homocysteine levels as a factor in heart
attacks. The problem can be spotted in a blood test, although many doctors
don't check for it routinely.
"It's what we consider a new risk factor. We haven't been
able to do a big trial yet," says Obarzanek. But she says it makes sense to
keep your homocysteine levels low. It's believed that homocysteine can damage
the lining of blood vessels, which can lead to a blockage. Obarzanek says even
though the results of the study were expected, the research was a "good
The experiment enrolled almost 120 people. Initially, everyone
ate a diet similar to the typical American diet. After three weeks, some stayed
on that diet, while others ate more fruits and vegetables and the rest ate the
DASH offerings, which added low-fat dairy products to the second diet.
However, to continue getting the benefit, you have to stay on
the strict diet, which includes nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
"It's not enough to eat just an occasional fruit or vegetable while
consuming a high-fat diet," says Lawrence Appel, MD, the lead author of the
study in a release.
Even though the study was small and had other limitations, the
researchers say they're confident they've found a real phenomenon.
"Results of this trial may help to explain the beneficial
effects of certain dietary patterns, such as vegetarian diets, which are
associated with a reduced risk of ... heart disease and stroke," write the