This is a watershed moment in the field of nutrition, medical experts say. For the first time, researchers have shown that a diet can have an effect as powerful as drugs in preventing what really matters to patients — heart attacks, and strokes and deaths from cardiovascular disease.
The subjects were people at high risk of heart disease, and the diet was a Mediterranean one, high in olive oil or nuts.
The study, published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine, is now shaking up the field of cardiovascular medicine, infusing it with optimism.
Scientists are calling for similarly rigorous studies of other popular diets that are routinely recommended by cardiologists even though there is little solid evidence that they work.
“We don’t know what the best diet is,” said Dr. Michael Lauer, the director of the division of cardiovascular sciences at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “This is a great opportunity to come together and use power of the scientific method to get closer to the right answer.”
Other leading experts agreed.
“This is the start of where we need to go with nutritional clinical trials,” said Dr. Neil J. Stone, a professor of preventive cardiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and a former chairman of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute is supporting a large clinical trial to see if fish oil and vitamin D can prevent heart attacks and cardiovascular deaths. But while that is important, heart experts say it is time to also look at diets as a whole.
“We definitively need to test plausible diets, within the context of what is available and consumed in the U.S., that could lower the risk of heart disease,” said Alice H. Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University and the lead author of the American Heart Association’s dietary guidelines.
Dr. Lawrence Appel, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins who was a member of the 2005 and 2010 U.S. dietary guidelines committees, said he was inspired by the Mediterranean diet study.
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