New research looks at how much inflammatory foods — including red meat, refined grains, and sugary drinks — increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Study participants who ate the most inflammatory foods had a 46% higher risk of heart disease and 28% higher risk of stroke, compared to those who ate a healthier diet.
But researchers found that foods high in antioxidants — leafy greens, yellow veggies like carrots and peppers, coffee, tea, and red wine — were linked to reduced inflammation and heart disease risk.
Drinking more wine and coffee and indulging in some leafy greens could be good for your heart, according to new research — especially if you also cut back on processed foods.
Researchers led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health studied up to 30 years of dietary data from 210,145 Americans to assess how much certain foods influence our heart disease and stroke risks.
They found a diet high in pro-inflammatory ingredients, like processed meat and refined carbs, could increase a person's risk of heart disease by 46% and stroke by 28%.
In contrast, the study found that participants who ate a lot of anti-inflammatory foods had a lower risk of developing heart disease.
Specifically, foods like leafy greens, orange and yellow veggies like carrots and peppers, whole grains, coffee, tea, and red wine, are all high in antioxidants and vitamins that studies suggest have significant health benefits.
This study is unique in that the researchers looked at the cumulative impact of pro-inflammatory food on heart disease risk — in other words: why some foods are more harmful for heart health than others over time.
"Our study is among the first to link a food-based dietary inflammatory index with long-term risk of cardiovascular disease," Dr. Jun Li, lead author of the study and a nutrition researcher at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a press release.
Striking a balance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods
Pro-inflammatory foods that increase stress chemicals in the body are linked to higher rates of heart problems, according to the study published in the November 10 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
After controlling for lifestyle factors, they found people who ate more red meat, processed meat, refined grains, and sugary drinks like soda were more likely to have heart attacks or develop heart disease during the study.
These food groups all linked to biomarkers indicating stress on the body, according to previous research that ranked inflammation potential by measuring blood proteins in response to specific patterns of eating.
Previous research has also linked these foods to poor heart health. A study in February linked eating two servings of meat a week with higher risk of heart disease, and there's evidence that cutting back on meat is associated with better cardiovascular outcomes. There's also extensive research that processed foods, including sugar and other refined carbohydrates, are bad for health in all kinds of ways.
In contrast, eating more unprocessed, plant-based foods can help reduce inflammation, research suggests. Studies have shown reduced levels of inflammation in people who switch to a plant-based diet.
There's also evidence that certain compounds and nutrients in plant foods help reduce inflammation. In particular, plant nutrients called polyphenols appear to help regulate the immune system (and lower the body's stress response) and help reduce the risk of disease.
But it's possible that some of the benefits come from cutting back on harmful processed foods, too. More research is needed to better understand how this works.
People with the longest lifespans live on coffee, wine, and leafy greens
These findings are consistent with previous evidence that plant-based diets are protective against heart disease, according to a related editorial on the study.
Diets high in these foods are consistently ranked among the healthiest in the world. These include the Mediterranean diet, which prioritizes healthy fats and fresh produce over red meat and processed foods, and the Blue Zones diet, modeled after regions around the world where people have the longest, healthiest lives.
One limitation of this study, however, is that it shows a correlation between eating patterns, inflammation, and heart disease risk. More data is needed to establish whether these eating patterns, and related inflammation, cause heart disease.
More research on how foods affect inflammation can help us better understand what makes these eating patterns healthier, and how we can optimize our own diets for health, according to Dr. Ramon Estruch, author of the editorial comment and senior consultant in the department of internal medicine at Hospital Clinic in Barcelona.
"A better knowledge of health protection provided by different foods and dietary patterns, mainly their anti-inflammatory properties, should provide the basis for designing even healthier dietary patterns to protect against heart disease," Estruch said in a press release. "When choosing foods in our diet, we should indeed beware of their pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory potential."
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