Monday, December 12, 2011

Healthy Diets and Whole Foods, not Nutrients, Linked to Lower Stroke Risk

The shifting focus from single nutrients to whole foods for optimal health is becoming increasingly apparent. Once again, research (and a little common sense) is showing that diseases and poor health aren't prevented by singular nutrients in isolation or taken in supplemental forms. In fact, on the contrary, taking supplemental doses of particular nutrients or eliminating others based on outdated associations can do more harm than good to our overall health.

To summarize this point quite nicely, a new Australian study published in the Lancet has demonstrated that particular dietary patterns like the Mediterranean or DASH diets can prevent medical conditions like stroke or heart disease. The authors also noted that supplemental doses of singular nutrients like vitamins A, C, E and calcium don't decrease stroke risk and might in fact increase it. Treating deficiencies of vitamins B and D might lower stroke risk but in situations of adequacy, the relationship isn't as clear cut. When it comes to sodium and potassium, it has been found that high salt intakes (>5g/d) increase stroke risk while high potassium intakes can lower it by lowering blood pressure.

When it comes to macronutrients, more research is pouring in to support the fact that moderate intakes of saturated or naturally occurring trans fats (e.g. CLA) don't raise the risk of heart disease. However, consuming unsaturated fats like the essential fatty acid omega-3 found in fish or MUFAs like those found in meat, avocados and olive oil can lower one's risk of heart disease. So ultimately, a balance of all kinds of fats is not harmful in the context of a healthy diet. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, particularly the refined kind, are becoming increasingly vilified if consumed in large quantities. Pools of research indicate that a high consumption of carbohydrates is associated with heart disease and stroke risk.

Certain whole foods that have been regarded for their medicinal properties still hold their ground according to this study. Chocolate, coffee and tea are among the list of foods that have been associated with lower incidences of stroke. When it comes to whole dietary patterns, once again the DASH and Mediterranean diets have both been associated with lower stroke risks while the DASH is also associated with a lower risk of heart disease. These diets have consistently topped healthy diet lists and make a strong case for focusing on whole foods as well as combinations of foods rather than glorifying or vilifying particular nutrients. Once again, as always, the key message is that balance is necessary in all things, particularly in one's diet, for good health.