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More of this, less of that to help your heart
We know that reducing the amount of saturated fat in your diet is a good way to help improve your cholesterol scores. We also know that poor cholesterol scores put you at higher risk for heart attacks and stroke. However, the available evidence from randomized controlled trials has not specifically shown that reducing saturated fat actually leads to fewer cardiac events such as heart attacks and stroke.
Eating fish slows the progression of heart disease!
We have known for a long time that eating fish is good for you. Eating fatty fish like tuna and salmon has been shown to reduce the risk of sudden death. There has not been research, however, to show what effect eating fish might have on the progression of the narrowing of arteries that feed blood to the heart. It is the reduction in size of these blood vessels (the coronary arteries) with plaque that doctors call atherosclerosis.
Effects of a high fat meal go beyond weight gain
I have written previously about the immediate effects that a high fat meal can have on the body (Good fats protect your arteries, 8/11/06). There have been a number of studies showing how much effect a meal that is high in saturated fat can have on everything from inflammatory markers to blood pressure. Fabkjana Jakulj and her colleagues at the University of Calgary reported on their research into this in the April issue of the Journal of Nutrition (J Nutr 2007;137(4):935-939).
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We know that the Mediterranean Diet can help prevent cardiovascular disease, but what if you have an acute coronary event anyway? Dr. Panagiotakos and his team of researchers in Greece (Nutrition 2006;22(7-8):722-730) selected six major hospitals in Greece, and for a term of one year enrolled in their study almost all the patients in those hospitals who were diagnosed with acute coronary syndrome (meaning either a heart attack or unstable angina).
Once the patients had been treated and were stable, they were interviewed regarding their lifestyle habits (smoking, exercise, etc.) and demographic information. Their diet was assessed using a very detailed food frequency questionnaire that helped the researchers assess just how closely the patient's diet matched the Mediterranean Diet. The researchers assigned points to the various components of the diet, with a maximum score of 55 being most closely matching the Mediterranean Diet. Patients were considered to have "high adherence" with a score of 36 or above, and "low adherence" with a score below 30.
The patients were then monitored through the first thirty days after their hospitalization, and their outcomes and final diagnosis were correlated with their Mediterranean Diet score.
The results are pretty astounding. A Mediterranean Diet score just 5 units higher than another patient's meant: 1) a 15% lower risk of having a heart attack (remember that not all patients had been hospitalized for a heart attack); 2) a 23% lower risk of dying during hospitalization; and 3) a 19% lower likelihood of having another cardiac event during the first 30 days after hospitalization for an initial cardiac event. Finally, those whose diet matched the Mediterranean Diet more closely tended to be those who were hospitalized for unstable angina, as opposed to those who were hospitalized for heart attack.
You don't have to follow the Mediterranean Diet perfectly to see its advantages for your heart. Look at my recent article on the components of the Mediterranean Diet to see where you might make one or two improvements in your adherence to the Diet.
First posted: May 15, 2007