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Whole Grains Do a Heart Good

Cereal cuts cardiovascular risk, as do fruits, veggies, research shows

MONDAY, Oct. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Diets rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and even a little alcohol may help ward off heart woes, new studies show.

In one study, regular consumption of whole-grain breakfast cereal cut the risk of heart failure for male American physicians.

Another study, this time from Sweden, touted the benefits of fruits, veggies and the occasional drink in helping women beat heart attack.

The American study analyzed the association between breakfast cereal intake and new cases of heart failure, in which the heart progressively loses its ability to pump blood.

The study included data on more than 21,000 participants in the Physicians' Health Study who were followed for almost 20 years.

Compared to those who ate no whole-grain cereal, men who consumed 2 to 6 servings per week saw their risk of heart failure fall by 21 percent, while those who ate 7 or more servings per week reaped a 29 percent reduction in risk, the researchers reported in the Oct. 22 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

That effect is due, in part, to the high levels of magnesium, potassium and fiber in those breakfast cereals, said study co-author Dr. Luc Djousse, an associate in epidemiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"Our recommendation is that a lay person consuming breakfast cereal should look at fiber," Djousse said. "At least four grams of fiber [per serving], that should be sufficient."

Fiber increases cells' sensitivity to insulin, thus reducing the risk of diabetes, while potassium and magnesium lower blood pressure, he explained.

Breakfast cereal is best taken with skim milk, Djousse said, "and if you want to add to it, a piece or half-piece of fruit would be good."

While the study included only men, there is "no reason at all" why the results shouldn't apply to women, he said.

The Swedish study, done at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, took a much broader approach to the food intake of more than 24,000 postmenopausal women who supplied information on how often they ate 96 common foods.

The study, published in the same issue of the journal, identified four major dietary patterns: healthy (vegetables, fruits and legumes); Western/Swedish (red meat, processed meat, poultry, rice, pasta, eggs, fried potatoes, fish); alcohol (wine, liquor, beer and some snacks); and sweets (sweet baked goods, candy, chocolate, jam and ice cream).

In an average 6.2-year follow-up period, 308 of the women had heart attacks. However, two dietary patterns, healthy and alcohol, were associated with a reduced risk of heart attack, the researchers said.

A low-risk diet is characterized by a high intake of whole grains, fish, vegetables, fruit and legumes, moderate alcohol consumption, along with not smoking and being physically active and relatively thin, the researchers concluded. "This combination of healthy behaviors -- present in 5 percent [of those studied] -- may prevent 77 percent of myocardial infarctions [heart attacks] in the study population," the team wrote.

The study was called "empowering" by Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, because "it demonstrates that people have control over their health and can take control, eat properly and exercise and prevent onset of disease."

"This study clearly demonstrates that it is within an individual's control to change destiny and the ability to control his or her health," Steinbaum said.

"What's amazing is that a study of 24,000 women shows that a reduction of 77 percent is possible," she said. "What could be more empowering than that?"

The issue is muddied by a plethora of books urging different diets, she acknowledged. But the real road to long-term health "is not so much going on a diet as adopting a healthy lifestyle," Steinbaum said.

More information

There's more on heart-healthy lifestyles at the American Heart Association.

SOURCES: Luc Djousse, M.D., associate, epidemiology, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston; Suzanne Steinbaum, M.D., director, women and heart disease, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Oct. 22, 2007, Archives of Internal Medicine

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