We know that a high-fiber diet can be a critical heart-healthy lifestyle change for young and middle-aged adults, but it’s one that’s worth the switch. Scientists from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine studied adults between 20 and 59 years old a few years ago and found that those with the highest fiber intake had a significantly lower estimated lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease than those with the lowest fiber intake.

As reported in Prepared Foods, lead author Hongyan Ning, a statistical analyst in the department of preventive medicine at Feinberg, examined data for the study from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a nationally representative sample of about 11,000 adults. Ning considered diet, blood pressure, total cholesterol, smoking status and history of diabetes in survey participants and then used a formula to predict lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease.

“The results are pretty amazing,” Ning says. “Younger (20-39 years) and middle-aged (40-59 years) adults with the highest fiber intake, compared to those with the lowest fiber intake, showed a statistically significant lower lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease.”

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains the leading cause of mortality in the U.S., killing nearly 1 million Americans each year, reports Prepared Foods with findings from the American Heart Association (AHA). Traditional approaches to treatment remain focused on prescription drugs and surgery. But the high costs and undesirable side effects of many standard protocols have forced the medical community to reassess the status quo in dealing with the nation’s number-one health menace.

Bruce Holub, professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, suggests that a proactive, preventive model of healthcare holds the key to a workable solution for CVD and other chronic diseases appearing at younger ages today than ever before. Holub hypothesizes that such a model, which might include the early introduction of nutraceuticals and functional foods (such as fiber-containing grains) well researched for cardiovascular benefits, could save a minimum of $300 billion dollars annually in healthcare costs in North America.

Dietary fiber

Various epidemiologic studies that link dietary fiber with prevention of CVD have formed the basis for recommendations from the National Academy of Science for fiber intake: 38 g. and 25 g. daily are suggested for young men and women, respectively, based on an intake of 14 g. of fiber per 1,000 calories. The specific mechanisms by which fiber may protect against CVD include lowering blood cholesterol (soluble fiber), attenuating blood triglyceride levels (primarily soluble fiber), decreasing hypertension (all fiber) and normalizing postprandial blood glucose levels (all fiber). The benefits provided by both soluble and insoluble fibers underscore the importance of consuming a total amount of fiber from various sources. Thus, nutrition experts counsel that individuals should increase their consumption of both types of fiber, not solely soluble fiber.

And there are cardio-protective benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids. About 10 years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a qualified health claim for products containing the Omega 3 compounds eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Such products may state that “consumption of EPA and DHA Omega 3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, based on supportive but not conclusive research.”

Clinical trials demonstrate that Omega 3s reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and consumption of 200 mg. a day of DHA is associated with a 50% reduction in the risk of sudden cardiac death. Ongoing clinical investigations have led some international expert panels and health organizations to recommend even higher daily intakes of EPA and DHA—at least 450 mg. for people without CVD and up to 1,000 mg. for those with CVD. Why Omega 3s? They improve the ratio of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) to low-density lipoprotein (LDL), lower levels of triglycerides and have antiplatelet and anti-arrhythmic effects.

The phytonutrients in nuts, grains and plants are also important to consume, according to the Prepared Foods article. Epidemiological studies assessing the relationship between diet and heart disease have repeatedly demonstrated the benefits of plant-based diets. Studies have focused on determining which specific plant foods are responsible for preventing CVD. For vegetarians, nuts may exert some of the most powerful protective effects. Population studies have reached similar conclusions about the cardio-protective effects of nut consumption. For example, substituting walnuts for part of the monounsaturated fat provided by a cholesterol-lowering “Mediterranean diet” can further reduce total and LDL cholesterol levels for people with elevated cholesterol levels.

In fact, many nuts are exceptionally rich in individual phytonutrients linked with heart health, including arginine, vitamin E, folate, fiber, potassium, magnesium, tannins and polyphenols. Polyphenols (phenolic compounds, including the subcategory known as flavonoids), are found in all plants and have been extensively researched in tea, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, olive oil, cereals, red wine and many cardio-protective herbs.

Incorporating heart-healthy ingredients such as these in baked goods and snack can boost consumer health benefits as well as your own financial health.


Editor’s Note: SF&WB thanks Prepared Foods magazine for providing information for this article.