The role of healthy eating in preventing heart disease is well established, but a new international study spearheaded by researchers in Hamilton suggests that chowing down on wholesome foods improves health outcomes even for people who already suffer from cardiovascular disease. 

"The main findings of the study was that a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and fish significantly reduces the chance of a second heart attack," said Dr. Mahshid Dehghan, a research associate with Hamilton's Population Health Research Institute, which coordinated the effort. 

Eating healthfully, she added, provides additional benefits for people who are taking medication — blood thinners, for example — to treat their ailments.

PHRI and McMaster University collaborated with researchers worldwide to track the eating habits of more than 30,000 subjects over the age of 55 who suffer from cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Participants from 40 countries filled out questionnaires about their lifestyles at the beginning of the study.

Five years later, researchers checked up on the health outcomes of their subjects, many of whom were being treated with medication.

Researchers found that participants who had diets that were high in fibre and low in saturated fats carried about a 30 per cent lower risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. 

"We found similar associations in all regions of the world, in different countries with different levels of income," Dehghan said.

Prevention

These findings don't come as surprise to Cory Ma, a registered dietitian at the North Hamilton Community Health Centre, who facilitates programs for seniors who suffer from — or are at a high risk of developing — diabetes or heart disease.

"If my clients don't eat enough fruit and vegetables, when they start, it really helps to relax their blood vessels," he said.

Ma teaches a diet program called D.A.S.H., which stands for Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension.

The focus of the regime, Ma said, "is to have high-fibre whole grains instead of white flour products, lots of plant-based foods, more vegetable proteins, like beans, nuts seed and chickpeas, less red meat, less alcohol and less refined sugars."

"There's not going to be much salt in those foods. And because there's less red meat, there's less saturated fat."

The diet isn't just useful for high-risk seniors, Ma noted.

"A lot of times, we only see people when they already have [heart disease]. The diet can be followed by anybody and may actually help to prevent it."