"If their overall pattern of eating seems to closely match those components, they may want to move away from that," said lead researcher James Shikany, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
About 735,000 people in the U.S. have heart attacks each year, according to the American Heart Association, and about 120,000 die as a result.
To prevent heart attacks and heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for both men and women, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight and diet, and not smoke.
Previous studies mostly focused on individual foods or parts of the diet that may be tied to an increased risk of heart disease, but these days researchers are looking "at overall diet as opposed to a specific nutrient or a specific food," Shikany told Reuters Health.
For the new study, he and his colleagues used data collected from 17,418 people aged 45 or older from across the U.S.
Based on interviews about food eaten in the past year, researchers were able to identify five dietary patterns.
One pattern involved a lot of convenience foods that a person would likely order from a restaurant, such as pasta dishes, pizza, Mexican food, and Chinese food.
Another pattern involved a lot of plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, fruit juice, cereal, and beans, as well as fish, poultry and yogurt.
The "sweets" pattern included a lot of added sugars, desserts, chocolate, candy, and sweetened breakfast foods.
The "Southern" pattern involved typically Southern food, such as fried foods, eggs, organ meats, processed meats, sugary drinks and foods with added fats.
Finally, researchers saw that some people loaded up on beer, wine, liquor, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and salad dressing; they called this the “alcohol and salad” pattern.
Overall, over about six years of follow-up, there were 536 heart attacks, including some resulting in death, the researchers reported in the journal Circulation.
Among people whose diet fell into the Southern pattern, those whose food choices most closely the pattern were 37 percent more likely to have a heart attack during the six years, compared to those whose choices least closely matched it.
The link remained significant even after the researchers accounted for factors often involved in heart attack risk like age, race, education, blood pressure and weight.
The other four dietary patterns were not linked to an increased risk of heart attack, but Shikany said that doesn't mean they're heart-healthy.
"I wouldn’t say go ahead and eat all the convenience food you want," he said.
Among the limitations of the research is the fact that the data used in this study had been previously collected for another study.
However, Shikany said there is likely little risk tied to telling people to try grilled chicken instead of fried chicken every night. Or, cutting back on sweet teas.
"From what I know about it, it’s much more successful when you give people options and not suggest eliminating complete groups of food," he said.
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