"While everyone knows that eating more vegetables is supposed to be good for you, no one had shown before that it can actually inhibit the development of atherosclerosis," said Michael Adams, D.V.M., lead researcher. "This suggests how a diet high in vegetables may help prevent heart attacks and strokes."
The study used specially bred mice that rapidly develop atherosclerosis, the formation on blood vessel walls of fatty plaques that eventually protrude into the vessel's opening and can reduce blood flow. The mice have elevated low-density lipoprotein ( LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, which is also a risk factor for atherosclerosis in humans.
Half of the mice in the study were fed a vegetable-free diet and half got 30 percent of their calories from a mixture of freeze-dried broccoli, green beans, corn, peas and carrots. These five vegetables are among the top-10 vegetables in the United States based on frequency of consumption.
After 16 weeks, the researchers measured two forms of cholesterol to estimate the extent of atherosclerosis. In mice that were fed the vegetable diet, researchers found that plaques in the vessel were 38 percent smaller than those in the mice fed vegetable-free diets. There were also modest improvements in body weight and cholesterol levels in the blood.
The estimates of atherosclerosis extent involved measuring free and ester cholesterol, two forms that accumulate in plaques as they develop. The rate of this accumulation has been found to be highly predictive of the actual amount of plaque present in the vessels.
Adams said it is not clear exactly how the high-vegetable diet influenced the development of plaques in the artery walls.
"Although the pathways involved remain uncertain, the results indicate that a diet rich in green and yellow vegetables inhibits the development of hardening of the arteries and may reduce the risk of heart disease," said Adams.
He said that a 37 percent reduction in a certain marker of inflammation in mice suggests that vegetable consumption may inhibit inflammatory activity.
"It is well known that atherosclerosis progression is intimately linked with inflammation in the arteries," Adams said. "Our results, combined with other studies, support the idea that increased vegetable consumption inhibits atherosclerosis progression through antioxidant and anti-inflammatory pathways."
Numerous studies in humans have shown that a high-vegetable diet is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as with reductions in blood pressure and increases in "good" cholesterol. This is believed to be the first study to address the effect of increased vegetable consumption on the development or progression of atherosclerosis.
Despite compelling evidence supporting the health benefits of increased vegetable consumption, intake remains low, Adams said. The mean consumption is 3.2 servings per days, with about 40 percent coming from starchy vegetables such as potatoes.
The research was funded by the General Mills Company, which supplied the freeze-dried vegetables.
Co-researchers were Deborah Golden, B.S., Haiying Chen, Ph.D., Thomas Register, Ph.D., all with Wake Forest, and Eric T. Gugger, Ph.D., with the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, General Mills Company. The cholesterol analysis was performed by the Core Lipoprotein Laboratory of the Department of Pathology/Lipid Sciences at Wake Forest.
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university's School of Medicine. U.S. News & World Report ranks Wake Forest University School of Medicine 18th in family medicine, 20th in geriatrics, 25th in primary care and 41st in research among the nation's medical schools. It ranks 32nd in research funding by the National Institutes of Health. Almost 150 members of the medical school faculty are listed in Best Doctors in America.