Healthier meals could mean fewer strokes and heart attacks

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  • Researchers have found that people who stuck to healthy eating had an up to 21% lower risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Healthy diets concentrated on unrefined plant foods and the scaling down of meat and sugar  
  • Such eating patterns lowered cardiovascular risk in all racial and ethnic groups 

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Sticking with a healthy diet can lower your risk for stroke and heart attack, a new study suggests.

"Although each healthy eating pattern represents a different combination of dietary constituents, our study indicates that greater adherence to any of the four healthy eating patterns we looked at is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and the health benefits persist across racial and ethnic groups," said study author Zhilei Shan. He is a research associate in the department of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston.

For the study, Shan's group focused on dietary scores for four healthy eating patterns: Healthy Eating Index-2015; Alternate Mediterranean Diet Score; Healthful Plant-Based Diet Index; and Alternate Healthy Eating Index.

Although each diet was different, they all stressed eating whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes and nuts, while eating less red and processed meat and sugar-sweetened drinks.

Long-term health benefits

The researchers compared each diet with the risk for cardiovascular disease using data on nearly 75 000 women in the Nurses' Health Study and nearly 91 000 women in the Nurses' Health Study II. They also used data on more than 43 000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.

Over several decades of follow-up, the researchers found that people who kept to a healthy eating pattern had a 14% to 21% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with people who didn't always eat a healthy diet.

All of the healthy eating patterns had a similar effect in lowering cardiovascular risk in all racial and ethnic groups – including the risk of heart disease and stroke.

According to researcher Dr Frank Hu, "These data provide further evidence to support current dietary guidelines that following healthy eating patterns confers long-term health benefits on cardiovascular disease prevention." Hu is a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard.

"There is no one-size-fits-all diet that is best for everyone. One can combine foods in a variety of flexible ways to achieve healthy eating patterns according to individuals' health needs, food preferences, and cultural traditions," he said in a school news release.

The study was published online on 15 June in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Image credit: iStock

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