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Am Fam Physician. 2000;62(7):1660-1662

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women. Studies in men have demonstrated that a low-fat vegetarian diet, along with other lifestyle changes, can lead to regression of atherosclerotic lesions.

Barnard and associates assessed the effects of a low-fat vegetarian diet on serum lipid levels in healthy premenopausal women by reviewing the data obtained in a clinical trial planned to test the effects of such a diet on hormonal function. The subjects were healthy premenopausal women with regular menstrual periods. Women with diabetes, thyroid disease, eating behavior problems or mental illness were excluded. The 35 volunteers who completed the study were randomly assigned to two groups that received a diet intervention phase and a placebo phase in a crossover design. The intervention phase lasted two months for each group. The intervention diet consisted of grains, vegetables, legumes and fruits. Animal products, added oils, fried foods, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds were not permitted. The diet derived approximately 10 percent of calories from fat. All participants attended a one-hour weekly nutrition seminar and support group meeting throughout the study.

Mean serum total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol concentrations decreased 13.2 and 16.9 percent, respectively, from baseline to the intervention diet phase. Mean high-density lipoprotein (HDL) concentrations decreased 16.5 percent between baseline and the intervention diet phase. The LDL:HDL ratio did not change.

The authors conclude that the use of a low-fat vegetarian diet by healthy premenopausal women is easy to adapt to and leads to striking reductions in serum LDL and total cholesterol concentrations during even a short-term intervention. This intervention may help women develop good eating habits and may decrease the incidence of cardiovascular disease later in life.

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