Medical Advances

The Early Impact of a Heart Healthy Diet

northwestern medicine research heart healthy diet in young adulthood decrease risk

Main Article Content

Eating Well Can Improve Heart Health From Early Age

A balanced and nutritious diet is smart to have at any age, but people most often begin paying attention to what they eat when they’re older. However, a recent study from Northwestern Medicine suggests that a healthy diet in young adulthood might decrease the likelihood of heart disease later in life.

Led by Philip Greenland, MD, Harry W. Dingman professor of Cardiology and director of the Center for Population Health Sciences, scientists reviewed data from 2,500 men and women aged 18 to 30. The data contained answers from the participants about their eating habits as well as coronary calcium heart scans conducted 20 years later. The coronary scan measures the amount of calcium, which can build up and cause heart attacks. It is considered a useful indicator of heart risk.

The results of the study showed that people who ate more fruits and vegetables as young adults also had lower levels of calcium in their arteries 20 years later. Participants who ate an average of 7 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables were 25 percent less likely to have significant amounts of calcium than those who ate 2 to 4 servings a day. Those with lower levels of calcium were also more likely to have followed a healthier diet, including more sources of heart-healthy nutrients like fish and nuts.

While the scientists did not have a baseline reading for calcium in each participant, calcium in the arteries is nearly nonexistent in people in their 20s. Furthermore, when the scientists adjusted for other risk factors for heart disease, such as physical activity, smoking status, high blood pressure and high blood sugar, the results still indicated the impact of diet.

Interested in hearing more from Northwestern Medicine? Sign up for the Healthy Tips E‑Newsletter for everything from health and wellness ideas to patient breakthroughs to academic and medical advancements.