April 14, 2008 -- A healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in fat has long been touted as heart smart. Now, increasing evidence suggests that a similar diet reduces blood pressure and decreases a woman's risk for heart attack and stroke.
Scientists reporting in the April 14 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine have found that healthy, middle-aged women who closely followed the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet have lower rates of cardiovascular disease (CVD) than women who do not follow such diets.
"Our study provides, to our knowledge, the strongest evidence to date on the long-term benefits of the DASH diet in the primary prevention of CVD among healthy subjects," writes Teresa T. Fung, ScD, of Simmons College, Boston.
National dietary guidelines promote the DASH diet as an example of a healthy eating pattern. The diet comprises plenty of fruits, vegetables, and plant proteins from legumes and nuts, and moderate servings of low-fat dairy products. It is low in meat. Considerable research has shown that such a diet substantially lowers blood pressure in people with high and normal blood pressure while also reducing LDL "bad" cholesterol. Restricting salt while on the diet provides an even greater blood pressure reduction.
High blood pressure and high cholesterol are both risk factors for cardiovascular disease. However, little is known about the DASH diet's effect on heart attack and stroke. Fung and colleagues studied the eating patterns of 88, 517 female nurses aged 34 to 59 to determine if sticking to a DASH diet affected a woman's risk of such diseases. The women did not have CVD or diabetes when the trial started.
Seven times over a period of 24 years the women told the researchers what types of foods they regularly ate over the previous 12 months. Fung's team grouped the foods into specific categories, giving them a DASH score for each type. The more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes a woman ate, and the closer she stayed to dairy recommendations, the higher her DASH score. Eating more red and processed meats, salt, and sweetened drinks lowered the scores.
The women who had the highest DASH scores had the lowest risk for heart disease and stroke. Closely following a DASH diet resulted in a 24% reduction in heart disease risk and 18% lower risk of stroke when compared to those with the lowest DASH scores.
The authors point out that the women with the highest DASH scores also appeared to live overall healthier lifestyles. They were less likely to be current smokers, more likely to exercise, and tended to consume high amounts of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids than the other study participants.