After Heart Attack: Eat Better, Live Longer

Healthy diets reduced risk of death, study claims

strawberries in heart shaped bowl

Many people know that a healthy diet can help prevent heart disease. But results of a new study published in the September online edition of JAMA Internal Medicine claim that even after experiencing a heart attack, you can improve your odds for a healthy life by following well-established guidelines for a healthy diet.

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Study’s importance

David Frid, MD, staff physician, did not participate in the study, but reviewed the results. “This study suggests that lifestyle changes, specifically those geared toward making changes in your diet, will have an impact…I think it’s something we’ve assumed for a long time,” says Dr. Frid.

Study details

Researchers wanted to examine the effect of diet on patients who had already suffered a myocardial infarction or heart attack.

They analyzed the eating habits of 2,258 women and 1,840 men and assigned each person a score that rated the health of his or her diet.

Factors considered included how much red meat, sugary sodas and salt a person ate versus how many vegetables, whole grains and nuts were included in daily diets.

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The article claims that people who had the highest scores or the healthiest diets had a reduction in risk for future cardiac events and death compared to those who had the lowest scores, or the most unhealthy diets.

However, Steven Nissen, MD, chairman of Cleveland Clinic’s Robert and Suzanne Tomsich Department of Cardiovascular Medicine, points out that the JAMA Internal Medicine article on diet after a heart attack did not adequately consider that patients who ate a healthier diet also were more likely to engage in other heart-healthy behaviors. “The authors did not fully account for all of these other behaviors,” Dr. Nissen says.

“Although eating a healthy diet is important, this research study is weak and based on a group of patients enrolled nearly 40 years ago,” Dr. Nissen says.  

Perhaps not surprising was the fact that wealthier patients had healthier diets and less wealthy people had less healthy diets, because fish (which has lean protein) and fresh produce are more costly than processed foods, which contain more fat, salt and sugar.

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Diet specifics

Even with the shortcomings of the research, the study does provide some insights. For example, healthy diet is a vague phrase. In the past, physicians found that patients were confused when told to improve their diet. Too often, people would simply cut out saturated fats and cholesterol, and then replace the calories with sugary sodas and unhealthy carbohydrates.

Rather than just focusing on what not to eat, the study stresses the need to educate patients about what they should eat, and how they could structure healthy meals.

Findings also give further support to promoting a Mediterranean-style diet, which focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts and olive oil.

In eating better, heart attack survivors may empower themselves to live longer, healthier lives.

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