What’s Your Heart Worth?

Healthnotes Newswire (July 27, 2006)—For people who have had a heart attack, eating a Mediterranean-type diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fish while limiting saturated fats may be the most cost-effective way to prevent future heart disease.

A blanket term that encompasses heart attacks, stroke, angina, and heart failure, cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of men and women in the United States. It claims more lives each year than cancer, chronic respiratory illnesses, accidents, and diabetes combined. With a projected cost of more than $403 billion for 2006, effective strategies for heart disease prevention have never been more pressing.

The Lyon Diet Heart Study—a well-known trial that looked at the role of diet in cardiovascular disease protection––compared the Mediterranean diet with the Step One recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA) in people who had suffered a heart attack. The Step One diet restricts fat intake to 30% of total calories, with no more than 10% of calories from saturated fat. (Note: The AHA revised its guidelines this year to reflect recent research, and the new recommendations for people with heart disease are similar to the Mediterranean diet. This study, however, used the previous version of the AHA’s guidelines.)

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole grain breads and cereals, root vegetables, green vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, and fish. Red meat is replaced with poultry, and eggs are limited to four per week. Olive oil—a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids—contributes the bulk of the fat in the diet. Butter and cream, which are high in saturated fat, are avoided.

The Lyon study showed that people who followed the Mediterranean diet had a 50 to 70% lower chance of developing further cardiovascular disease than the Step One group did.

The Lyon study and similar trials demonstrate that adopting healthier eating habits lowers the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. But when it comes to making an investment in healthcare or otherwise, most people want to know, “How much is it going to cost me?” and “What’s my return?” The people at the Center for Health Economics in Victoria, Australia, set out to answer these questions.

The team of researchers looked at how much more it would cost to follow the Mediterranean diet, and how much longer a person could expect to live in good health by adhering to the diet.

For each year of life gained in good health, the Mediterranean diet was found to cost $703 more than the Step One diet. This estimate included consultations with a cardiologist and a nutritionist, as well as the cost of food. The researchers found that following the Mediterranean diet could add almost five months to your life over a period of ten years.

Based on these results, the researchers concluded, “The Mediterranean diet is highly cost-effective for persons after a first [heart attack] and represents an exceptional return on investment.”

(J Nutr 2006;136:1879–85)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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