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Heart Health

01 May 2019

Veggies, fruits and grains keep your heart pumping

In order to follow a healthier diet, people need to be educated about the benefits of plant-based nutrition and have access to low-cost healthy foods.

As if you needed any more proof that fruits, vegetables and whole grains are good for you, a new study finds they may cut your chances of heart failure by 41%.

Conversely, the so-called Southern diet, which focuses on meats, fried and processed foods and lots of sweet tea, was tied to a 72% increased risk of heart failure.

Steps to prevent heart failure

"Eat more plants, limit red and processed meat," said lead researcher Dr Kyla Lara, a cardiology fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Lara cautioned that this study cannot prove different diets cause or prevent heart failure, only that they are linked.

Nearly six million American adults suffer from heart failure, and that number is expected to rise with the ageing population. The condition occurs when the heart does not pump blood sufficiently to meet the body's needs.

Steps to prevent heart failure include not smoking, keeping blood pressure under control, maintaining a healthy weight and eating healthy foods.

Getting people to eat healthier requires that they be educated about the benefits of plant-based diets and have access to low-cost healthy foods, Lara said.

A large US stroke study

"Animal meat is not necessary for a nutritious diet, in terms of health promotion and quality of life," she said. "Now is the time to get on board with a plant-based diet – it's going to be the future of health."

In the study, Lara and her colleagues collected data on more than 16 000 men and women, 45 and older, who took part in a large US stroke study. None of the participants had heart disease at the start of the study. Participants completed a questionnaire that asked them about their diet.

The diets were classified into five types:

  • Convenience, which was heavy on meats, pasta, Mexican food, pizza and fast food
  • Plant-based, which included vegetables, fruits, beans and fish
  • Sweets and fats, which was heavy on desserts, bread, sweet breakfast foods, chocolate and other sugars
  • Southern, which was heavy on fried foods, processed meats, eggs, added fats, and sugar-sweetened drinks
  • Alcohol and salads, which was heavy on wine, liquor, beer, leafy greens and salad dressing

After nearly nine years of follow-up, 363 participants developed heart failure.

The benefit of the plant-based diet was significant, but after taking into account factors such as weight, waist size, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, the negative effect of the Southern diet was no longer statistically significant, Lara said.

Heart and lifestyle

It might be that the increased risk for heart failure in this group was due to obesity and excess belly fat or other factors, she said.

None of the other diets showed a statistically significant association with heart failure, and no association was seen between any diet and the type of heart failure people developed, the researchers noted.

The findings were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

"Our lifestyle, such as what we eat, if we are physically active and smoking or vaping, can contribute significantly to a poorly functioning heart, which in turn affects our quality of life and ultimately how soon we die," said Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center in New York City.

Plant-based diets have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cognitive [thinking] decline, type 2 diabetes, several cancers, depression and obesity," said Heller, who wasn't involved with the study.

For optimal health, people need to cut back on fried foods, cheese, fast food and junk foods, and processed and red meats, she said.

Meatless dinners

"It is sad and frustrating when I see patients who could quite literally save their lives by making healthier choices, but instead opt for a burger and fries," Heller said.

A cheeseburger, fries and milkshake meal sounds innocent enough, but it can add up to more than 2 600 calories, 65 grams of saturated fat and 3 400 milligrams of salt, she said.

Heller advises people to include a minimum of one high-fibre food to every meal. "Dietary fibre is only found in plant foods, such as spinach, oranges, quinoa and lentils."

Also try having meatless dinners two or three nights a week, like a grilled vegetable and black bean burrito, pasta primavera or an edamame and fresh vegetable stir fry, she suggested.

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