Plant-Based Diet May Prevent Heart Disease

Nutrition Health Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Plant-Based Diet May Prevent Heart Disease


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An estimated 80 million American adults---one in three--have one or more types of heart disease, says the American Heart Association (A.H.A.), based in Dallas, Texas. Diet can have a significant effect on reducing the risk of heart disease. Since even people who take statin drugs for lowering cholesterol may have heart attacks, dietary interventions should not be underestimated. "

Dietary Components Are Key

Evidence suggests that dietary patterns have a lot to do with the development of heart disease. A study conducted by nutritional biochemist Alice Lichtenstein and colleagues has found that sticking to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 reduced the progression of arterial plaque--the buildup of fatty deposits in artery walls--in women who already had the disease. The guidelines provide authoritative advice about how dietary habits can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic illnesses.

Dr. Lichtenstein is Director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. Her study examined data on eating patterns of 224 postmenopausal women. Multiple angiographs, which measure the degree of coronary artery disease, were taken of each volunteer at the beginning and end of a three-year study period. The researchers used a comprehensive measurement to score adherence to both individual and overall dietary components of the guidelines. They also used a mathematical method known as regression analysis to assess diet-disease associations. The women who showed a greater adherence to the overall guidelines had less progression of atherosclerotic lesions over the three-year period.

She explained: "We established that individual dietary components do not have the same weight as the total diet in terms of describing diet-disease relationship. This is important from a public health perspective, because the work supports the development of effective dietary guidance for preventing health problems."

The finding highlights the need for more sophisticated approaches to assessing the effect of dietary recommendations on various chronic diseases, wrote the authors.

Food Chemical Findings

Some consumers clearly are striving to eat well as a way to prevent or delay heart problems that eventually could require taking prescription medications. In response, food companies are adding naturally occurring nutrients to foods in higher-than-natural concentration as a way of helping consumers.

Phytosterols are sterols and stanols, compounds found in small quantities in plants. When consumed by humans in large quantities, phytosterols reduce arterial plaque buildup. In plants, these compounds are similar in structure and function to cholesterol, and in humans they work by blocking the absorption of cholesterol in the small intestine.

"Phytosterols are not naturally found in any one food serving in high enough levels to have an effect on cardiovascular disease," says Dr. Lichtenstein.

Numerous clinical trials have shown that consuming foods enriched with at least 0.8 grams and up to 3 grams of plant sterols or stanols daily lowers serum low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol (LDL-C) levels. By comparison, we would have to eat at least 100 or more carrots to get the equivalent of 0. …

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