Healthy diet - illustrated

Diet and Heart Disease

Many of my clients ask me how long they should remain on their diets.  The fact of the matter is that a reducing diet should be as short as possible.  Nobody wants to diet seriously for too long.  But there is another type of diet that we should all aspire to, and that is the healthy diet.  A healthy diet is a lifelong commitment – because we now know that eating healthily is one of the simplest ways of giving yourself the best chances of longevity.

Studies tend to look at people’s diet over a few weeks or a few years.  But what we want to know is whether a lifelong commitment to a healthy diet is going to be worth it?

Healthy diet and heart disease

Every so often a study comes along that looks at a population over a really long period of time.  Just such a study was published this week [1]. It looks at a cohort of 75,000 NHS women nurses who started being recruited way back in 1984. That was the time of Maggie Thatcher, The Miners’ Strike and the first Band Aid Concert. A further 90,000 women were recruited in 1991. This study tracked the health of these women, comparing their diet with the incidence of cardiovascular disease, which is a big killer. In the UK, one in twelve women die from coronary heart disease*.   The study found that those who had followed a healthier diet for all those years were 10 to 20% less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease.   In statistical terms that’s a big difference.

What is a healthy diet?

My friends all ask me what they would have to give up if they decided to lose weight.  ‘What’s the secret, what should I cut out?’, they ask.  I always respond by suggesting they forget about ‘giving-up’ particular foods and instead concentrate on increasing their consumption of healthy foods.

The Nurses’ Health Study examined four different established healthy diets:

  • The Healthy Eating Index – 2015
  • Alternative Mediterranean Diet Score
  • Healthful Plant-based Diet Index
  • Alternative Healthy Eating Index

Each diet scores the subject depending upon how much and how regularly they eat a series of healthy foods.  What the study team noticed was that whichever way they scored the diets, the healthier women reported a higher intake of wholegrains, vegetables, fruits, legumes and nuts.  All of which have been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. There were some differences.  In this study women following the Mediterranean Diet, were healthier than those following the Healthful Plant-based Diet.  The difference is fish. In a Mediterranean Diet fish receives a positive score, but in the plant-based diet, fish receives a negative score (as an animal product).   Several previous studies have associated higher fish intake with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.  Fish is really useful, low fat protein and anyone who reads my blog knows that I consider protein to be really important as we get older.  It is possible to eat good protein and remain plant-based, but it is more difficult.

Do I have to stick to particular foods?

The conclusions are unequivocal.  A healthy diet will reduce your risk of heart disease, but the exact balance of that diet can be a matter of choice.

Nutritionist have known for some time that there are no wonder foods.  So please don’t rely on eating gallons of cranberries, or oysters, or chocolate, assuming that there’s one food that will miraculously switch on the healthy buttons in your body.  Seek a healthy, balanced and wide-ranging diet for life.  Be continuously curious about new fresh foods, eschew manufactured foods (these score low in all the healthy diets) and make sure you eat regularly from all the five main food groups:

  • Protein (plant of lean animal)
  • Cereals
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Milk and milk products

Making a lifelong commitment to healthy eating

If you started your healthy eating regimen back in 1984, like the nurses this study followed, you are in good company.  But do not despair, if you are thinking of changing your diet today.  As we age, improving our diet has a gradually greater effect, as our bodies lose their robustness.  Just like giving up smoking, you’ll find the effects of an improved diet start being felt very quickly.  Deciding to eat more healthily today, may well improve your health tomorrow. This study shows that, if you can keep it up, a healthy diet will almost certainly improve your health chances for many years to come.

You can find more about my advice for a healthy diet here The Good Life

*Pre-covid19 British Heart Foundation Figures Jan 2020

[1] Shan et al. (2020) Association Between Healthy Eating Patterns and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, JAMA Internal Medicine, June 15th 2020

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