Researchers at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Massachusetts in the US have found that eating less salt and meat while eating more nuts and seafood could greatly lower the risk of heart disease.
They came up with a list of which foods to eat less of and which to eat more of. The researchers recommend people to eat more: nuts, seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and polyunsaturated fats (such as soybean oil, corn oil, walnuts and flaxseed oil). On the other hand, they warn against consuming too much: sodium, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meat (such as steak or pork chops).
Renata Micha of Tufts and colleagues developed their list from national surveys covering 16,000 people from 1999-2012. Volunteers filled out food diaries in real time, and were followed for years after to see what happened to their health.
In 2012, Micha’s team wrote, more than 700,000 Americans died of heart disease, stroke or diabetes. “Of these, an estimated 45% (318,656 due to heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes) were associated with suboptimal intakes of the 10 dietary factors,” they wrote in their report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
They used published studies on the benefits or drawbacks of each of the 10 foods to figure out just how much each one contributes to the risk of death from heart disease.
By their calculations, eating too much sodium (more than 2,000 mg a day) accounted for 9.5% of the deaths. Eating too few nuts (less than about a handful a day) accounted for 8.5% of deaths; eating too much processed meat accounted for 8.2% of deaths; eating too little seafood was responsible for 7.8% of the deaths.
“These results should help identify priorities, guide public health planning, and inform strategies to alter dietary habits and improve health,” they wrote.
They left out monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, vitamin D, magnesium, calcium, antioxidant vitamins, dairy products, cocoa, coffee, and tea because they could not find enough evidence to assign a specific value to their benefits.
The effects also varied by age group, sex and ethnicity. In adults under 65, too many sweet drinks and processed meat were the biggest killers. For people over 65, eating too much salt and too few nuts and veggies were the culprits.
Blacks and Hispanics were more strongly affected by the dietary factors than whites, the researchers found — especially when it came to sweet drinks. “Overall, suboptimal diet was associated with 53.1% of total estimated cardiometabolic deaths among blacks, 50% among Hispanics, and 42.8% among whites,” they wrote.
The American Heart Association has for decades stressed that food is a major factor in preventing America’s No. 1 cause of death. And many studies have shown that Americans eat far too much meat, cheese, processed grains, sugar and salt.
Studies also back the health effects of a daily handful of nuts, eating more vegetables, fruits and whole grains, as well as the omega-3 fatty acids found in some fish, walnuts, leafy greens and flaxseed.
Diets rich in vegetables, fruit, vegetable oils, and whole grains also lower the risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.