While it’s well established that a healthy diet improves heart health, experts wondered whether making healthier decisions over time impacts risk for heart disease. Published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, one recent study analyzed how changes in diet impact cardiovascular risk.
In total, analysis included more than 80,500 U.S. adults free of heart disease whose health and diet were tracked for over two decades. Participants were from the Nurses’ Health Study, which included female nurses ages 30–55 and the Health Professional Follow-Up Study, consisting of male health professionals aged 40–75 years. Both studies periodically evaluated diet with questionnaires and used medical records to track key outcomes like heart disease. Researchers then analyzed changes in diet and cardiovascular risk every four years between 1986 and 2010.
Researchers found that in any four-year period, adults with the greatest improvement in dietary scores had 7–8% lower risk of heart disease in the next four years. The earlier participants implemented healthy changes, the better. Participants making healthy changes in the first four years of the study had up to 9% lower risk for heart disease over the next two decades. Not surprisingly, researchers also found that drops in dietary scores were associated with weight gain and increased cardiovascular risk.
Dietary scores were calculated based on adherence to three types of diets including the healthy eating index, Mediterranean diet and DASH diet (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension). All three eating plans have been linked to decreased risk for heart disease and emphasize a high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, while limiting red meats, added sugars and saturated or “bad” fats. However, each of the diets have characteristics that make them unique. For example, the Mediterranean diet includes fish and moderate alcohol intake, while the DASH diet focuses on reducing sodium intake.
The good news is that all three diets helped reduce risk for heart disease in study participants.
The take-home message, as authors explain, is that even modest improvements in diet help prevent heart disease. So while our diets may vary over time, it’s never too late to start making healthier choices to improve heart health. With a variety of eating plans proven to reduce risk for heart disease, such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, what matters most is finding a diet that works for you and that can be maintained over time.