Help your heart with olive oil and veggies

(Reuters Health) - There is no secret that eating well is good for the body and mind, so no surprise that a recent study found that women who consume more olive oil and green leafy vegetables such as salads and cooked spinach are significantly less likely to develop heart disease.

A group of Italian researchers found that women who ate at least a portion of leafy vegetables per day were more than 40 percent less likely to develop heart disease at an average of eight years compared with women who ate two or fewer servings of vegetables a week.

Women who drank at least 3 tablespoons of olive oil per day - for example in salad - were also 40 percent less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease, compared with women who consumed the least olive oil.

It is unclear why specifically leafy vegetables and olive oil may protect the heart, study author Dr. Domenico Palli Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Florence told Reuters Health. "It is likely that the mechanisms responsible for the protective effect of plant foods on cardiovascular disease involving micronutrients such as folate, antioxidant vitamins and potassium, all present in green leafy vegetables."

Folate reduces blood levels of homocysteine, Palli said, it is believed that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by damaging the inner lining of arteries. Other studies have shown that people who consume more potassium have lower blood pressure, which can protect the cardiovascular system. Virgin olive oil may be particularly effective in reducing the risk of heart disease because of its high level of antioxidant plant compounds, he added.

This is not the first study that relates the olive oil and vegetables for good heart health. Most famously, the traditional Mediterranean diet - rich in vegetables and monounsaturated fats in olive oil and nuts, but low in saturated fats from meat and dairy products - has been linked to lower heart disease risk.

Mediterranean-style eating has also been credited with reducing risk of some cancers, diabetes and, more recently, with the slowdown of the aging brain (see Reuters Health story December 29, 2010).

Cardiovascular disease is a major cause of death, accounting for 30 percent of all deaths worldwide and the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S.

To look more closely at the role of food in the protection against heart disease, Palli and colleagues reviewed the dietary data collected from almost 30,000 women participating in an Italian national survey of general health. The researchers followed the women, whose average age was 50 at baseline to an average of 8 years, noting who developed heart disease.

At that time, 144 women experienced major adverse cardiac events related to the disease such as heart attack or bypass surgery, researchers report in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Women who ate at least one portion per day (about two ounces) of leafy vegetables - such as lettuce or endive raw or cooked vegetables such as spinach or chard - had a 46 percent lower risk of developing heart disease than Women who ate more than two servings per week.

Drinking at least one ounce of olive oil a day reduced their risk by 44 percent compared with women who ate a half ounce or less per day, the authors found.

The women's consumption of other types of plants such as roots and sprouts, and their consumption of tomatoes or fruits do not seem to be linked to the risk of serious cardiac events.

Both fruits and vegetables have been associated with heart benefits in previous studies in other parts of Europe and North America. The authors caution that the apparent lack of positive effects of high fruit consumption in their results may have something to do with a different attitude toward the fruit in Italy. It's cheap, varied and easily accessible, so eat lots of fruit is a widespread but not necessarily a sign that the rest of the diet of a person is healthy, the authors wrote.

Another problem with the study, Palli said in an e-mail, is that women had to report how much they ate of different items, and some may not have accurately recalled their diet, or may have changed their eating habits during the period study. In addition, people often overestimate healthy behaviors in the belief that eating healthier than they actually do.

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