Cardiovascular disorders such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, peripheral vascular disease, heart attacks, and strokes top the list of causes of major chronic illness and death in the U.S. The underlying problem in many of these diseases can be traced back to faulty behavioral patterns: lack of exercise, smoking, and poor eating habits.
Organizations such as the American Heart Association (AHA) periodically make recommendations regarding general dietary guidelines to promote heart health. This advice is based on studies that have examined the lifestyles and eating habits of various cultures to identify the best practices to reduce the overall risk for cardiovascular disease and to improve longevity. Current AHA recommendations lean heavily toward the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
When compared to diets in other developed countries of the world, the typical American diet is higher in saturated fats, salt, and sugar. The diets of Americans are also lower in the consumption of fruits, vegetables, fiber, and omega-3 containing fats and oils.
The DASH diet was developed in the early 1990s from the DASH study, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. It was designed to study nutritional efforts to lower high blood pressure. Being somewhat of an antithesis of the “typical American diet,” the DASH diet emphasizes high fruit, vegetable, and fiber intake, and lowering the consumption of overall fat and saturated fat intake as well as lower amounts of sugars, sweets, and salt. It is also higher in whole grains, poultry, fish, and nuts.
The Mediterranean diet is a similar nutritional recommendation based on the traditional dietary patterns of Greece, Southern Italy, Portugal, Palestine, Lebanon, and Spain. In general, these cultures have a lower incidence of heart disease than individuals in the U.S. The diet also emphasizes a high intake of vegetables, fruits, olive oil, legumes, nuts, unrefined/whole grain breads and cereals, and fish; additionally, red wine consumption is promoted for its source of antioxidants.
The consumption of red meat and processed meats are limited in these diets. Some studies have shown a moderate positive association between processed meat consumption and mortality, especially death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Very low meat consumption, i.e. less than once weekly, has been associated with increased longevity. However, a key factor in these studies was that the people who lived longer ate low meat diets for 20 years or more.
Both diets encourage the intake of fatty fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, lake trout, herring, and mackerel. These fish tend to have higher levels of the helpful omega-3 fatty acids. Fat intake is mainly from mono-saturated and non-trans fat oils such as olive oil. Olive and canola oils are used to replace butter and margarine on breads and with cooking. Nuts like almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pistachios also provide healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants. Herbs and spices are used instead of salt.
When examining the benefits of these diets on reducing the risk of death from heart disease, Greek researchers found that 16 percent of the benefit was attributable to high vegetable consumption, 11 percent to high fruit and nut intake, 10 percent to legume consumption, 24 percent was from moderate alcohol consumption, 17 percent to low intake of meats, and 11percent to the low saturated oils and fats.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.