Emphasizing healthy foods in your diet, not just banishing "bad" foods, may be the key to avoiding heart attack and stroke, a new study suggests.
Researchers analyzed the eating habits of thousands of older adults worldwide with heart disease and found results that might surprise you.
"Eating a healthy diet seems to have protective effects, but unhealthy foods don't seem to cause any harm," said lead researcher Dr. Ralph Stewart, a cardiologist at Auckland City Hospital in New Zealand.
Nutritionists didn't agree with the latter notion, however, stressing that more research is definitely needed.
The new study found that for every 100 people eating the healthful, Mediterranean-style diet, three fewer heart attacks, strokes or deaths occurred, compared with the same number of adults eating the so-called Western diet.
A Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and unrefined foods. A Western diet includes sugary desserts, meat and fried foods -- all the so-called "bad" foods, said Stewart.
"Traditionally, dietary advice has focused on avoiding unhealthy foods, but in terms of reducing risk, it's probably increasing more healthy foods rather than avoiding unhealthy foods," he said. "It's a lack of healthy foods in many people's diets that's the problem, not so much eating unhealthy foods."
However, unhealthy foods do increase the risk for obesity, especially in youth, and obesity is a major cause of health problems, Stewart said.
"Once you've got heart disease, other things might be more important than diet," Stewart said.
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The report was published April 25 in the European Heart Journal.
For the study, Stewart and his colleagues asked more than 15,000 people from 39 countries to complete a lifestyle questionnaire when they enrolled in a trial assessing treatment with the anti-cholesterol drug darapladib. All had stable heart disease, and their average age was 67. GlaxoSmithKline, the drug's maker, helped to fund the study.
Participants were asked how many times a week they ate foods such as meat, fish, dairy, whole grains or refined grains, vegetables, fruit, desserts, sweets, sugary drinks, deep-fried foods and alcohol.