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Chalk Another One Up For Heart Healthy Diets

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

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 disease.

"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 WebMD.

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 design."

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 authors.

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