Even a month of eating poorly can have a negative effect on our blood pressure, cholesterol levels and other risk factors for heart disease, according to a small, but intriguing, study published recently in the journal Nutrients. But if we turn things around and start eating healthy again, those risk factors can improve within a few weeks, the study also found.
Such findings seem particularly pertinent — and hopeful — during this end-of-year holiday season.
Sticking consistently to a heart-healthy diet — a difficult proposition at any time of the year — can be particularly, well, challenging when we’re faced with repeated offerings of pumpkin pies, turkey stuffing, eggnog, sugar cookies and other holiday treats.
This new research suggests, however, that even if you do lose your willpower, all is not lost. Just don’t backslide for long.
“Even in the short term, your food choices influence whether you’re going to have a successful or unsuccessful visit with your doctor,” said Wayne Campbell, the study’s senior author and a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University, in a released statement.
For the study, Campbell and his colleagues examined data from two previous studies they had done. In both studies, the participants (60 in all) had adopted either a DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension)-style or a Mediterranean-style eating plan for five to six weeks. Those diets emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, and are considered good for cardiovascular and metabolic health.
After the first phase of the study was over, the participants were told they could return to eating “normally” for four weeks. Then they were put back on the heart-healthy eating plan for another five or six weeks.
Before and after each change in their diet, the participants had their blood pressure, cholesterol levels and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease assessed.
The results of those assessments are striking. After just five weeks of being on the heart-healthy diet, the participants’ blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) improved, as did their levels of total cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). But when the participants returned to their regular eating patterns, those gains were wiped out within a month.
Fortunately, however, going back on the heart-healthy diet changed things yet again — this time in a positive direction. Blood pressure and blood lipid levels once again improved.
Limitations and implications
The study involved only a few dozen participants. The findings might have been different if more people had been included. Also, the participants were provided most of the food they ate while on the heart-healthy eating plans. It’s unclear if those eating plans would have had as much effect on the risk factors for heart disease if the purchasing and planning of the plans’ meals had been the responsibility of the participants.
Another major limitation of the study is the fact that the risk factors were measured at only four points in the study.
Still, the findings are interesting — and encouraging.
“It seems that your body isn’t going to become resistant to the health-promoting effects of [a healthy] diet pattern just because you tried it and weren’t successful the first time,” said Campbell.
“The best option is to keep the healthy pattern going,” he added, “but if you slip up, try again.”
FMI: You can read the study in full on Nutrients’ website.