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Low-Fat Diet Improves Heart Health in Boys

By Kimberly Beauchamp, ND

Healthnotes Newswire (March 16, 2006)—Diets low in saturated fat may help lower cholesterol levels and improve blood-vessel health in boys, possibly preventing heart disease later in life, reports the journal Circulation (2005;112:3786–94).

All of the arteries in the body are lined with a layer of cells called the endothelium, which help to control the contraction and dilation of the arteries. Diets that are high in saturated fats—such as those found in butter, meats, and palm kernel oil—may raise cholesterol levels and injure the cells of the endothelium. When the endothelium doesn’t function properly, hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, may occur. Reducing cholesterol levels helps improve the health of the endothelium and may decrease the risk of heart disease.

In children, diets that are low in saturated fat can bring cholesterol levels down, but their effect on blood-vessel function is not well understood. Previous studies have examined the relationship between diet and endothelial function in children who are at risk for heart disease. Some, but not all, of these trials showed an improvement in endothelial function with a low-fat diet.

The new study was conducted to investigate the effect of an early dietary intervention program on cholesterol levels and endothelial function later in life. Over 1,000 children were enrolled in the study at seven months of age and followed for 11 years. The children were assigned to either a low-saturated-fat (intervention) group or a control group. Caregivers of children in the intervention group were given dietary and lifestyle guidance by dietitians and physicians throughout the study, and they recorded their children’s food intake for four days, two times per year. The children’s levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides—measures of heart disease risk—were measured at regular intervals. Ultrasound measurements of the brachial artery (a major artery in the arm) were performed to assess endothelial function in some of the children when they were 11 years old.

Children in the intervention group ate significantly less fat—about 30% of total calories—than did children in the control group, who ate 32 to 33% fat. Heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats contributed more calories in the low-fat group, whereas saturated fats were more abundant in the control group diet. Triglyceride and HDL cholesterol levels were similar between the two groups; however, total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels were significantly lower among boys in the intervention group than in those in the control group. There were no differences in these levels among the girls. Ultrasound measurements revealed better endothelial function in the low-saturated-fat group. Girls in the intervention group did not demonstrate this effect. Higher cholesterol concentrations were associated with worse endothelial function in all of the children.

The results of this large study highlight the importance of developing healthy eating habits at an early age for heart disease prevention

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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