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Healthy Eating Can Help Prevent Heart Disease

Adopting a healthy eating pattern over the years reduces your chance of a heart attack or stroke by about 20 percent.

We have heard for years that eating a well-balanced diet will have positive health benefits. Three decades of data demonstrate that healthy eating patterns reduce heart disease (JAMA Internal Medicine, online June 15, 2020).

Following Healthy Eating Patterns:

The investigators drew their data from three different cohorts. They are the Nurses’ Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II, and Health Professionals Follow-up Study (165 794 women and 43 339 men). Every few years, the volunteers filled out extensive dietary questionnaires and responded to surveys about their health status.

To analyze this treasure trove of information, the researchers used several previously validated ways of scoring healthy eating patterns. These included the Healthy Eating Index-2015, the Adapted Mediterranean Diet score, the Healthy Plant-Based Diet Index or the Alternative Healthy Eating Index.

People who scored higher on any of these scales were almost 20 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack or a stroke. The investigators note that these different dietary indexes were not perfectly correlated with each other. Presumably, they measure slightly different aspects of a good diet. Nonetheless, the general direction was consistent. Clearly, people eating better diets are less likely to suffer cardiovascular problems.

The scientists conclude

“Our findings provide support for the recommendations of the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans that it is not necessary to conform to a single dietary plan to achieve healthy eating.”

People can adapt these plans to suit their personal preferences and food traditions. Choosing less processed food and more whole grains and vegetables is a common thread.

Earlier Meals for Healthy Eating:

As you just read, scientists have known for years that what you eat has a big impact on cardiovascular health. Does it matter when you eat?

Results from 103,389 participants in the NutriNet-Santé study suggest that eating earlier in the day is better for your heart (Nature Communications, Dec. 14, 2023). In this observational study, researchers took many confounding factors into account.

People who ate breakfast early in the day did better than those who delayed. People who finished their final meal of the day after 9 pm were 28% more likely to experience cerebrovascular disease such as a stroke than those who finished eating before 8 pm. Researchers followed up on these volunteers for about seven years, on average. The message appears to be that eating early and fasting overnight can help reduce the risk of cardio- and cerebrovascular complications, especially for women.

The investigators conclude:

“Our results suggest a potential benefit of adopting earlier eating timing patterns, and coupling a longer nighttime fasting period with an early last meal, rather than breakfast skipping, in CVD [cardiovascular disease] prevention.”

Learn More:

Early eating with a long period of no eating overnight has been referred to as early time-restricted eating. Following this plan for healthy eating aids weight loss and blood sugar control. To learn more about this topic, you may wish to listen to our interview with Dr. Marie-Pierre St-Onge. You’ll find it at Show 1094: Does It Matter When You Eat? She has spent many years studying this question.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Shan Z et al, "Association between healthy eating patterns and risk of cardiovascular disease." JAMA Internal Medicine, online June 15, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.2176
  • Palomar-Cros A et al, "Dietary circadian rhythms and cardiovascular disease risk in the prospective NutriNet-Santé cohort." Nature Communications, Dec. 14, 2023. DOI https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-43444-3
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