It’s no secret that too much sugar and saturated fat are bad for you, but which dietary combinations put you at a higher risk for heart disease and death as you get older?
The answer, according to a new University of Oxford study, will certainly disappoint many people.
Diets high in chocolate and pastries, butter, table sugar, sodas, and fruit juices, as well as poor in fresh fruit and vegetables, were found to be the worst. Diets high in sugary drinks, chocolate and sweets, table sugar, and preserves are also dangerous, but less so, even when similar diets are low in saturated fat items like butter and cheese.
“There’s a lot of study and data on specific nutrients,” said senior author Carmen Piernas, a research lecturer in primary care health sciences. “The problem is that people don’t eat nutrients; we eat food, combinations of food,” she added. “Telling people they need to cut down on sugar is quite complicated, and it may not be the proper message,” she says. So her team opted to look at diet and health outcomes in terms of individual foods rather than specific substances to limit.
They used the UK Biobank, a database of almost 117,000 persons in the United Kingdom who were recruited between the ages of 37 and 73 between 2006 and 2010.
Between two and five times, participants self-reported their diets. The food classes and nutrients were identified by the researchers. The rates of heart illness and death were calculated using hospital and death registry statistics.
Participants were divided into groups based on the foods they consumed. Piernas found that persons who ate a lot of chocolate, candy, butter, and white bread had a 40% greater risk of heart disease and a 37% higher risk of dying young.
The sugary beverage group had a 14 percent higher risk of heart disease and an 11 percent higher risk of mortality, albeit the associations were less evident than in the other group, according to Piernas. The study simply discovered connections, not a cause-and-effect relationship.
“Perhaps the value of this study is to start talking about chocolate, confectionery [sweet], white bread, butter, and high-fat cheese instead of sugar and fat,” Piernas said. “We need to educate people that if they eat a diet heavy in these items but low in fruits and vegetables, they are more likely to get heart disease and die young.”
“Primarily, these unhealthy diets cause individuals to gain weight,” says one expert, putting them at danger for heart disease.
Because the participants in this study were from the United Kingdom, the results may differ in other parts of the world, according to Piernas.
Participants who consumed more chocolate, confectionery, butter, and white bread in their diets were more likely to be younger male smokers. People who ate these foods in big quantities tended to be less active, fat and had high blood pressure than those who did not.
Even if they were more active and less likely to smoke, be obese, or have high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol, those who preferred a diet high in sweetened drinks and preserves had a higher risk of heart disease and death, according to the study.
Other foods previously associated with poor health, such as breaded fried fish, savory snacks, and processed and red meats, exist in this study but contribute to a lesser extent, according to Piernas.
According to the researchers, the data comes from 24-hour assessments and may not be indicative of the participants’ lifetime eating patterns. Future studies could go into the possible causes of the links.
The findings were reported in BMC Medicine on April 21.
The findings were evaluated by Whitney Linsenmeyer, a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“A diet rich in refined carbohydrate with white bread, high in saturated fat, high in added sugar hits all of those warning flags that are well supported by research,” she explained.
Linsenmeyer, who is also an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University in Missouri, said that thinking about individual foods in terms of poor health consequences or even mortality might be frightening.
“I believe it’s far more essential to stress that all of these items can undoubtedly fit into a balanced eating pattern,” she said. “We don’t have to completely avoid them, but we don’t want our diets to be high in these things,” Linsenmeyer said. “Moderation is kind of a dietitian trope, but it’s the real deal.” Healthy eating guidelines generally emphasize vegetables and fruits, lean protein, whole grains, and dairy or dairy alternatives, according to Linsenmeyer. Following that, less nutritious (or “nutrient-dense”) items would be added.
“To me, a balanced diet includes a good mindset and a connection with food that allows us to enjoy some of these delights without feeling guilty,” Linsenmeyer said.
More information The American Heart Association provides diet advice.