Leafy Greens, Whole Grains and a Glass of Wine May Keep the Heart Healthy

A Harvard team found strong links between a diet of anti-inflammatory foods, including wine, and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease

Leafy Greens, Whole Grains and a Glass of Wine May Keep the Heart Healthy
The researchers ranked food in people's diets by their anti-inflammatory properties; wine and Mediterranean diet foods scored well. (ImageSource)
Nov 25, 2020

Numerous studies over the past several decades have found evidence that wine's anti-inflammatory compounds can reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure, stroke and heart failure. A new study from Harvard University, published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology, followed people's diet habits for more than two decades and found that avoiding pro-inflammatory foods such as red meat and sweet drinks while consuming anti-inflammatory foods such as wine, tea and vegetables, can significantly lower your risk for cardiovascular disease.

To examine long-term dietary habits, lead author Dr. Frank Hu and his team at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed data from three different cohorts spanning well over 20 years, including the Nurses' Health Study (NHS) and Nurses' Health Study II (NHSII), which included over 165,000 women, and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, which followed 44,000 men. Hu's team examined food frequency questionnaires the large studies collected every four years to monitor diets. They also evaluated the inflammatory potential of each participant's diets using an empirical dietary inflammatory pattern (EDIP) score.

What makes this study unique is that it is the first to employ an empirical food-based dietary inflammatory index in association with cardiovascular disease. The index, or EDIP score, was developed by Harvard and is calculated as the weighted sum of 18 food groups that show the strongest association with inflammation. Participants with higher scores consumed diets with more pro-inflammatory foods, such as red meat, refined carbohydrates and sweetened beverages. Those with lower scores ate more anti-inflammatory foods, such as leafy vegetables, whole grains, coffee and wine. Dr. Jun Li, one of the study's co-authors, told Wine Spectator that wine had the highest statistical association with lower inflammation.

The researchers updated the scores every four years. All participants were free of cardiovascular disease at the start of the study. Over time, doctors reported the development of cardiovascular disease, and researchers analyzed autopsy records to ascertain evidence of fatal heart conditions.

The results showed that higher EDIP scores were significantly associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. "We hypothesized that a higher dietary inflammatory potential may be associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease incidence before conducting the study, and our findings confirmed our results," said Dr. Li. "The group of individuals that consumed the most pro-inflammatory diet were 46 percent more likely to develop coronary heart disease and 28 percent more likely to develop a stroke, compared to the group that ate the most anti-inflammatory diet."


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What surprised Dr. Li and her team was the robustness of the results. The findings are consistent across the cohorts, between men and women, even after they addressed confounding factors such as health conditions, anti-inflammatory medications and other risk factors.

One of the biggest limitations of the study is that these are correlations—the research has not measured a direct link between an anti-inflammatory diet and a lower risk of heart disease. Also, the cohorts used in the study included only health professionals who were mostly white.

Dr. Li says the team is conducting follow-up studies to address these factors. "We are replicating our study in other cohorts that include higher proportions of African Americans and American Hispanics/Latinos," she said. "We are also using other technologies, such as metabolomics [the study of metabolites], to examine potential biological mechanisms underlying the associations between dietary inflammatory potential and cardiovascular risk."

So what does this mean for wine lovers? Dr. Li notes that past studies suggest excessive alcohol intake can be detrimental toward cardiovascular and mental health. But she says that moderate wine intake with a healthy and anti-inflammatory diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, could be beneficial.

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