Certain foods are key to reducing heart disease risk, so it’s important to eat them to stay healthy.

A globally focused study looked at foods commonly considered to be healthy to better understand this.

Consuming fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish and whole-fat dairy products is key to lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), including heart attacks and strokes. The study was led by scientists at McMaster University and the Population Research Health Institute (PHRI) in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

The investigators noted that there are various ways to achieve a healthy diet — for example, including moderate amounts of whole grains or unprocessed meats.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from multiple studies that included 245,000 people in 80 countries. They derived a diet score from PHRI’s ongoing Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiological (PURE) study. The team used that to measure health outcomes in different parts of the world and in people with and without prior heart disease.

“Previous diet scores — including the EAT-Lancet Planetary Diet and the Mediterranean diet — tested the relationship of diet to CVD and death mainly in Western countries,” senior author Salim Yusuf, principal investigator of PURE, said in a university news release. “The PURE Healthy Diet Score included a good representation of high, middle and low-income countries.”

The score focused on exclusively protective, or natural, foods.

“We were unique in that focus. The other diet scores combined foods considered to be harmful — such as processed and ultra-processed foods — with foods and nutrients believed to be protective of one’s health,” said study first author Andrew Mente, a PHRI scientist.

“There is a recent increased focus on higher consumption of protective foods for disease prevention,” he added. “Outside of larger amounts of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, the researchers showed that moderation is key in the consumption of natural foods.”

Moderate amounts of fish and whole-fat dairy were linked with a lower risk of heart disease and premature death, Mente said.

“The same health outcomes can be achieved with moderate consumption of grains and meats — as long as they are unrefined whole grains and unprocessed meats,” he added.

Worldwide, nearly 18 million people died from cardiovascular disease in 2019 — about 32% of all deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Heart attacks and strokes caused about 85% of these deaths.

Based on the healthy diet score, a typical day should include two to three servings of fruit, two to three servings of vegetables, one serving of nuts and two servings of dairy.

The diet should also include three to four weekly servings of legumes, and two to three servings of fish. Whole grains could be substituted at one serving daily, as could unprocessed meat or poultry.

The findings were published July 6 in the European Heart Journal.

More information

The American Heart Association has more on cardiovascular disease.

SOURCE: Hamilton Health Sciences and McMaster University, news release, July 6, 2023