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Eat Your Greens

By Eric Van De Graaff, MD June 08, 2009 Posted in: Heart Health

What you eat matters can matter as much as the medication you take

A newly published study caught my eye this week.  A researcher in Massachusetts dug through a database of 36,000 patients in Sweden who had enrolled in an evaluation of mammography.  A detailed questionnaire administered by the study coordinators apparently elicited in great detail the type of diet the participants followed.

Some of the women ate pretty healthy: “three servings of fruit, 3.5 servings of vegetables, 5.1 servings of whole grains, 1.6 servings of low-fat dairy products, 0.1 servings of sweetened beverages, and 0.8 servings of red or processed meat per day.”

Others didn’t: “1.4 servings of fruit, 1.8 servings of vegetables, 3.3 servings of whole grains, 0.6 servings of low-fat dairy products, 0.4 servings of sweetened beverages, and 1.3 servings of red or processed meat per day.”

There was no mention made of the other food groups such as grande frappuccinos, Egg McMuffins, or beer.

The authors of the study were able to show that over the course of 7 years the women who followed the healthier diet were 37% less likely to develop congestive heart failure.  This generous improvement in outcome was seen despite the fact that most of these female volunteers were not very sick to start out with.  Only 20% of this cohort of 48- to 83-year-old women had a history of hypertension at the outset of the recording period.  This is probably considerably lower than a randomly selected group of women of similar age in Omaha.  These 36,000 were probably pretty healthy.

The DASH diet can have surprising effects

The interesting thing about this study (and the authors point this out) is that the healthiest diet described above closely mirrors the “DASH” diet, a diet promoted by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute as a way to treat high blood pressure (DASH is a clever acronym that stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).  This research paper is, in effect, the first validation of something as simple as diet to prevent the onset of heart failure in a healthy population.

I have promoted the DASH diet to my patients before.  Designed to limit sodium intake and promote potassium in the diet, this regimen has been found to decrease blood pressure by about 5 to 6 points.  I illustrate to my patients—many of whom deplore the idea of yet another new prescription and the cost of pills—that this is the same degree of blood pressure reduction we can achieve with a modest dose of most of our best blood pressure medications.  You don’t want to take another drug for hypertension?  All you have to do is eat better and you can save yourself the cost, potential side effects, and aggravation of another pill.

Now we have even more evidence that eating right does you good, even if you consider yourself pretty healthy already.

If you are worried about your risks for stroke, heart attack or other medical issues, try taking our online health awareness quizzes to find out more about your risk

Eric Van De Graaff, MD
Eric Van De Graaff, MD

Eric Van De Graaff, MD is a Heart & Vascular Specialist at CHI Health Clinic.

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