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Healthy Diet Lowers Death Risk for Women

Study found eating fruits, veggies, whole grains most protective against heart disease

MONDAY, June 23 (HealthDay News) -- Women can protect themselves against death from heart disease and other causes by sticking with a diet that is low in saturated fats and sugar and high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains, a new study suggests.

"We investigated a Western eating pattern -- lots of red and processed meat, French fries, refined grains and sweets -- and a prudent pattern -- lots of fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fish and poultry -- in relation to mortality," explained study author Christin Heidemann, who conducted her research while in the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. She is now a research scientist in the department of epidemiology at the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Nuthetal.

"[Women] with a high adherence to the prudent pattern had a 17 percent lower long-term risk of premature death from all causes, and a 28 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, compared to women with a low adherence to this pattern," Heidemann noted.

The findings were expected to be published in the July 15 issue of Circulation.

The researchers noted that what they defined as a prudent diet closely reflects dietary recommendations from the American Heart Association that target all healthy men and women, including taking steps to: limit saturated fats, cholesterol, and sodium; to lower sugar consumption; to eat fish twice weekly; to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole-grain and high-fiber foods; and to eat fat-free and low-fat dairy products.

The results mirror earlier reports such as one out of the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health that was published in Circulation earlier this year that also suggested a Western diet can compromise overall health.

In that earlier study of 10,000 Americans, a diet heavy in red meat, fried foods and refined grains was found to be associated with a higher risk for heart problems and diabetes via the development of the so-called metabolic syndrome. In that case, the finding applied to both men and women.

In the current effort, Heidemann and her team gleaned its observations from an analysis of the eating habits of more than 72,000 women who had participated in the Nurse's Health Study between 1984 and 2002.

All the women were between the ages of 30 and 55, and most were white. Prior to participation, none had any history of heart attack, angina, coronary-artery surgery, diabetes or cancer.

The authors sifted through five food questionnaires that had been completed every two to four years during the study period. The data concerned both portion sizes and frequency of consumption with respect to 116 different food items. In turn, foods were categorized as belonging to either a prudent or a Western diet.

Information was also collected regarding age, body weight and mass, blood pressure, supplement usage and physical activity routines.

Older women, those who exercised more, and those taking multivitamins and/or hormone replacement therapy were more likely to consume a prudent diet. By contrast, less active younger women who were more likely to smoke and less likely to take supplements were found more likely to have consumed a Western diet.

By the study's conclusion, just over 6,000 women had died: 1,154 from heart disease, 3,139 from cancer, and 1,718 from other causes.

With regard to both heart disease and death from all causes, consumption of a prudent diet was associated with a lower incidence of death compared with consumption of a Western diet.

High adherence to a Western diet was associated with a 22 percent higher risk of death from heart disease, a 21 percent higher risk of death from all causes, and a 16 percent higher risk of death from cancer.

Although a prudent diet was linked to a lower risk for death from cancer, the association was deemed not significant after accounting for other lifestyle and health factors.

"The results highlight the importance of intensifying efforts to promote the adoption of a healthy diet," Heidemann said.

"Recommendations to prevent chronic diseases and promote longevity may need to focus on overall dietary patterns, rather than individual nutrients," she added.

Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, said the finding is a no-brainer.

"If you eat your fruits and vegetables and whole grains, we know that that enhances health," she said. "And so, this is just another study to convince you that healthy eating does make a difference. Healthy eating does add years to your life."

"And I think women in particular should perk up at this study," Sandon added, "because there is still this notion that women don't die of heart disease. But the fact is, they do. And clearly, in terms of heart disease risk, diet makes a difference."

More information

For more on women's health and dietary needs, go to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

SOURCES: Christin Heidemann, Dr.P.H., M.Sc., research scientist, department of epidemiology, German Institute of Human Nutrition, Nuthetal, Germany; Lona Sandon, R.D., assistant professor, clinical nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern Medcial Center at Dallas, and spokesperson, American Dietetic Association; July 15, 2008, Circulation

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