Cardiology Journal Study Spotlights Forgotten Population: Healthy, Young Women
First-Ever Study Shows Low-Fat, Vegetarian Diet Best for Lowering Cholesterol
WASHINGTON—A low-fat, vegetarian diet reduces cholesterol levels among premenopausal women more dramatically than any other dietary approach, reveals a study in the 15 April 2000 issue of The American Journal of Cardiology. Conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), in coordination with Georgetown University School of Medicine, the 1997-1998 study is thought to be the first to look at the impact of cholesterol-lowering diets on younger women.
"Healthy, premenopausal women are considered ‘safe' from cardiovascular disease so they've been virtually ignored by diet researchers," says lead author and PCRM president Neal D. Barnard, M.D. "Unfortunately, this so-called safety period is only temporary. After menopause, a woman's risk of coronary disease increases rapidly, which is why we wanted to study how diet could help lower a woman's cholesterol levels." Elevated cholesterol levels are a major contributor to heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
Researchers studied a group of 35 women already following a low-fat, vegetarian program as part of another clinical trial. After only five weeks, the average LDL (low-density lipoproteins, the "bad" cholesterol) decreased by 16.9 percent and average total cholesterol by 13.2 percent—from 163 to 141. By comparison, the 30 percent-fat diet recommended by many doctors lowers cholesterol levels by only about 5 percent.
"We get dramatically better results because ours is a zero-cholesterol diet," says Dr. Barnard. Consisting entirely of grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruits, the diet contains absolutely no animal products, the sole source of dietary cholesterol. And with only 10 percent of their calories derived from fat, many of the women also experienced a significant weight loss, averaging one pound per week.
Researchers theorize that benefits like these, and the reduced risk of heart disease, inspire women to stick to a diet some might consider strict. "In fact, vegetarian diets are easier to follow," says Dr. Barnard. "Once you simply steer clear of animal products, you can stop worrying about getting rid of all visible fat or eating just the right-sized portion."
Dr. Barnard hopes the study will motivate women to change their dietary habits before they reach menopause. "It's never too early to develop healthy eating habits," he says.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.