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Lowering Heart Risk - nuts could reduce heart disease risk by nearly a third according to an HSPH study

A Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) study has found that replacing just one serving of red meat a day with a packet of nuts could reduce heart disease risk by nearly a third.

Kit Chellel and Todd Datz

September 3, 2010

Replacing just one serving of red meat a day with a packet of nuts could reduce your risk of heart disease by nearly a third. Researchers at HSPH have found that women who consumed higher amounts of red meat had a greater risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), but those who replaced red meat with protein-rich foods like fish, poultry or nuts had a lower risk of developing the condition. Eating one serving per day of nuts in place of red meat was linked to a 30 percent lower risk of CHD; substituting a serving of fish showed a 24 percent lower risk; poultry, a 19 percent lower risk; and low-fat dairy, a 13 percent lower risk.

“The few previous studies of red meat and heart disease largely looked at increasing red meat intake while decreasing all other, or at least unspecified, foods,” said Adam Bernstein, a researcher in the HSPH Department of Nutrition and lead author of the study. “We used a different approach to understand how replacing one protein-rich food with another was associated with heart disease risk.”

The findings, which appeared online Aug. 16 in Circulation, are the result of following more than 84,136 women in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital–based Nurses’ Health Study for 26 years. The women, aged 30 to 55, filled out a questionnaire every four years about what sort of food they ate and how often.

After adjusting for age, smoking and other known cardiovascular-disease risk factors, the researchers found that higher intakes of red meat that is processed (such as bacon and salami) and unprocessed (such as steak and pork) and high-fat dairy were significantly associated with an elevated risk of CHD. Higher consumption of fish, poultry and low-fat dairy was significantly associated with a lower risk of CHD.

Several factors may account for the link between red meat intake and higher risk of heart disease.

“When we eat red meat, we get a large dose of saturated fat, cholesterol and a form of iron that can override our control mechanisms,” said Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at HSPH and senior author of the study. “If instead we eat nuts as a protein source, for example, we get unsaturated fats that reduce our blood cholesterol, no cholesterol itself, and lots of fiber, minerals and vitamins.”

The researchers say the findings are likely to apply to men, as well.

“Our research adds to the growing and convincing body of evidence that red meat intake should be minimized or excluded from the diet in order to maintain cardiovascular health,” said Bernstein.

For more information, students may contact Adam Bernstein at abernste@hsph.harvard.edu.

Conflict Disclosure: Co-author Frank Hu reported receiving an unrestricted research grant from the California Walnut Commission.

Funding Sources: The National Institutes of Health; co-author Qi Sun was supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from Unilever Inc.; the authors are solely responsible for the content of this work.

Reference: Harvard Medical School, http://hms.harvard.edu/news/lowering-heart-risk-9-3-10, accessed 6/20/14

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