Nutrition education can lower a woman's risk of heart disease before menopause

November 06, 2001

Targeted education can lower a premenopausal woman's fat intake, thus lowering her risk of heart attack and other forms of cardiovascular disease (CVD), a new study indicates.

The research also reveals that a large percentage of premenopausal women - a group often overlooked by researchers - have risk factors for CVD, according to lead researcher Karen Chapman-Novakofski, R.D., L.D., Ph.D, from the University of Illinois' Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

These and other findings come from a study published in the November issue of Women's Health Issues.

Efforts to identify and reduce risk factors in women are critical, Chapman-Novakofski and colleagues note, because CVD is one of the most common diseases in women, accounting for more deaths than cancer.

These efforts, the investigators argue, should begin during a woman's reproductive years. The study "clearly shows that premenopausal women have CVD risks that should be addressed," Chapman-Novakofski. Moreover, risk factors deserve attention at this stage because they "will intensify after menopause."

Chapman-Novakofski and her team measured four CVD risk factors in 277 premenopausal women: three indicators of excessive body fat or unhealthy fat distribution, plus excessive fat intake from calories. They repeated the measurements six, 12 and 24 months later.

More than half the women showed one or more risk factors at the start of the study. Fat intake exceeding 30 percent of calories topped the list (58 percent of participants), with a high percentage of body fat close behind (49 percent of participants).

During the two-year study period, 174 of the women participated in a six-month nutrition education program, followed by 18 months of follow-up sessions to reinforce and expand on concepts learned. The remaining 103 women served as a control group and received no nutritional guidance.

After six months, the average percentage of calories from fat in the group receiving instruction fell significantly, from 33 to 29 percent, and stayed there until the end of the second year. The fat intake of the women who received no instruction did not change significantly at any time.

The researchers did not see any significant changes in the CVD risk factors indicated by unfavorable body composition. Nevertheless, they are encouraged that the women changed their eating patterns. Chapman-Novakofski explains, "the educational intervention most clearly targeted dietary fat [intake] and this was the risk factor which was significantly changed."

This suggests that future educational interventions modeled on this study, but focused more intensely on weight reduction and increased exercise, could help women lower other risk factors for CVD, she says.
The research was funded by the University of Illinois.

Women's Health Issues (WHI) is the official publication of The Jacobs Institute of Women's Health and the only journal devoted to women's health issues at the medical/social interface. It is a journal for health professionals, social scientists, policy makers and others concerned with the complex and diverse facets of health care delivery to women. WHI publishes peer-reviewed articles as well as position papers and reports from conferences and workshops sponsored by The Jacobs Institute of Women's Health. For information about the journal, contact Warren H. Pearse, MD, at (202) 863-2454.

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