Women’s Health Initiative
Studying the impact of diet on women
Could the foods people eat hold the secrets to good health?
That question was part of the impetus behind the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), a long-term, national study involving more than 161,000 postmenopausal women that focuses on strategies for preventing heart disease, breast and colorectal cancers, and fractures related to osteoporosis. RUSH University Medical Center is one of 40 U.S. centers participating in the study.
Heart disease and cancer
This year researchers released findings from the WHI concerning the effects of a low-fat diet — with some unexpected results.
In eight years of follow-up, researchers found that a low-fat diet lowered the risk of breast cancer by 9 percent. According to researchers, those results just missed statistical significance, meaning the reduction could have been due to chance. In addition, the diet showed no effect on colorectal cancer and, surprisingly, no effect on heart disease.
However, Henry Black, MD, a preventive medicine specialist at RUSH who served as one of the WHI investigators, says the results don’t mean that women should feel free to eat a high-fat diet. This study focused primarily on reducing total fat, and participants fell short of the goal of limiting total fat intake to 20 percent of total calories. That’s a tough goal for people to reach, Black says.
And there were indications that lowering intake of certain types of fat - rather than only total fat - might improve your health. Women who lowered their saturated and trans fats the most, lowered their low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, levels the most.
“There’s a very strong relationship between how much you lower LDL cholesterol and how much you prevent heart disease,” Black says.
As for breast cancer, with longer follow-up, researchers believe the results could eventually prove significant. Breast cancer tends to be slow-growing, and the full effects of a low-fat diet may not appear until later.
It’s also important to note that the WHI study looked only at older women and was over a relatively short period of time, Black points out. The health benefits of a long-term, low-fat diet started earlier in life are still not completely known.
In a separate part of the WHI study, researchers found that supplements of calcium and vitamin D - which your body needs to absorb calcium - didn’t greatly reduce the number of bone fractures women sustained. The exception was in a subgroup of women age 60 and older, where hip fractures dropped 21 percent with supplement use - a result Black calls impressive.
Although the study suggests that for older women supplements may be advisable, women must weigh the benefits against an increased risk for kidney stones - a risk identified by the WHI research. Kidney stones are less serious than hip fractures, but troublesome nevertheless.
At this point, there’s relatively little support for younger women taking calcium and vitamin D supplements, Black says. Getting adequate amounts of the nutrients through diet, however, remains important - especially before your early 30s, when bones usually reach their maximum density. Since calcium and vitamin D requirements vary with age, it’s important to speak with your doctor about your specific needs.
Follow-up with WHI participants will continue for at least five years, so stay tuned, advises Black. While the study hasn’t shown what researchers hoped, and it may not lead to new dietary recommendations right now, there’s a lot yet to be learned. “The exact components of 'eating right’ are going to be worked out over time,” he says.
More Information at Your Fingertips:
- For more information on heart care for women at Rush, visit the home page for the Heart Center for Women.
- For more information about other Women's Health Services at Rush
- Looking for a doctor? Call toll free: 888 352-RUSH (7874)
Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.
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Heart Care Tailored to Women at
Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
Rush University Medical Center offers comprehensive health care services for women of all ages. And Rush is also home to a heart program devoted exclusively to women.
At the Rush Heart Center for Women, women with heart problems are diagnosed and treated with great sensitivity and innovation by a team of cardiologists, nurse practitioners, nurses, nutritionists, cardiac rehabilitation specialists, cardiothoracic surgeons and cardiac psychologists who are backed up by the comprehensive resources of a world-class academic medical center.
At Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, medical science blends with a sincere commitment to provide women with the absolute finest, most compassionate care. Specialists and subspecialists work together to address the special needs of women, from common to complex to the everyday needs of women and their families. We offer direct access to the latest innovations and options — from prenatal care for high risk pregnancies, to diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of abdominal and pelvic disorders, to leading-edge research.
For more information about other health services and medical care for women at Rush visit the Women’s Health Services home page.
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