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What's Really Good for Your Heart?

A bit of alcohol's good for your heart, right? And eggs and meat are bad?

Turns out we don't really know. In fact, a study published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that for all the talk in health and nutrition circles about foods that promote heart health or contribute to heart disease, we know enough about only a handful of foods to place them definitively in one category or another.

The study rated evidence from 189 studies, weighing the strength of the connection each found between certain foods and heart health.

The A-list is short. There was strong evidence linking the Mediterranean-style diet - rich in fish, olive oil, whole grains, nuts and vegetables - to cardio health. The evidence was equally strong against trans-fatty acids and foods such as white bread that have a high glycemic index (a measure of how quickly carbohydrates release glucose into the bloodstream and thus affect blood-sugar levels).

Researchers found moderate support for the heart benefits of fish, marine omega-3 fatty acids, folate, whole grains, vitamins E and C consumed via food, beta carotene, alcohol, fruit and fiber. They didn't find enough evidence to say whether supplementary vitamin E and vitamin C, saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, total fat, alpha-linolenic acid, meat, eggs and milk are particularly good or bad for your heart.

So all those warnings about, say, saturated fat and your heart may not be so well grounded in science after all, right?

On the other hand, it looks as though you can't go wrong with the Mediterranean-style diet.

At least for now. This study's another example of the incremental nature of scientific knowledge. It also makes me think twice about the way we tend to trumpet findings from single studies-- whether they're linking alcohol to breast cancer (a connection that currently appears to be strong) or coffee to pancreatic cancer (a link that was debunked after being widely publicized).

The take-home message? Be wary of making big changes in your diet on the basis of the study du jour.

By Nancy Szokan  |  April 15, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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As a Board Certified internist, I believe food is vastly over-rated as both a cause of disease and as a disease prevention strategy.

What is a "take home" message about food? The author Michael Pollan's prescription: Eat Food (e.g. real foods); Not Too Much; Mostly Plants-makes a lot of sense.

More important than food: physical activity; stress; social connections; managing actual risk factors (BP, cholesterol, etc.)

Posted by: MDRoadRunner | April 15, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Turns out the methodology used in the Annals is itself flawed and the conclusions drawn inaccurate at best. Nutritional studies have always been difficult to do primarily because people will not follow them. That said, people who have really low cholesterol (LDL

Posted by: longjohns | April 15, 2009 6:23 PM | Report abuse

Congratulations, Ms. Szokan, on being one fo the few reporters or bloggers to note that researchers found "insufficient evidence" to link coronary heart disease with dietary saturated or total fat. This is the real shocker of the study. This contradicts the Diet-Heart Hypothesis that medical schools and cardiologists have been teaching for the last 30+ years!

-Steve Parker, M.D.

Posted by: SteveParkerMD | April 16, 2009 2:50 AM | Report abuse

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