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MONDAY, July 21, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Just one serving a day of tomato-based foods such as pizza or tomato sauce could lower your risk for heart disease by as much as 30 percent, contends a new Harvard study.
"The results are pretty enticing," says study author Howard Sesso, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "They're encouraging enough for us to do more studies."
Sesso and his colleagues reviewed the diets of approximately 40,000 women from the ongoing Women's Health Study, which was begun 11 years ago to follow women who, at the time, were free from cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Controlling for factors such as age, family history, smoking status and other health indicators, they found that women who consumed seven or more servings of tomato-based foods a week -- including tomato juice, tomatoes, tomato sauce or pizza -- had a nearly 30 percent reduction in risk for cardiovascular disease compared with women who ate less than one and one-half servings a week.
The study was sparked by research that has shown a connection between an increase in the diet of the antioxidant lycopene and a reduction in risk for prostate cancer, Sesso says. Since tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, he and his colleagues were interested to learn if the same antioxidant qualities, when eaten in tomatoes, might also lower heart disease risk.
Interestingly, however, when the researchers tabulated the result, the lycopene intake itself was not significantly associated with reduced heart disease risk. However, when they looked at food intake, as measured by self-reported servings, there was a clear cardiovascular benefit for those who consumed the tomato-based products on a regular basis.
This could be due to errors in measuring lycopene, Sesso says, because of the limited information available in the questionnaire. Or, another substance in the tomato-based foods could be providing the heart benefit, he says.
Whatever the cause, he says, "our study suggests preliminary evidence that consuming a number of servings of tomato-based foods per week may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease." The finding appears in the July issue of the American Society for Nutritional Sciences.
Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition for Washington University in St. Louis, finds the study promising, both because the large number of women surveyed make the results significant and because the findings concur with other work on the topic.
"The results may still be inconclusive, but the indication that lycopene/tomatoes may aid in the prevention of disease continues to evolve," she says. "I would encourage people to take these results and add them to the growing list of studies that point to the benefits of more fruits, vegetables and whole grains."
Sesso points out that those people who showed the benefit from eating the tomato foods might just have an overall healthier diet than those who had fewer servings of tomatoes.
"It could be the diet itself, one that includes more fruits and vegetables," he says. "Those people would have a better cardiovascular profile."
"It's hard to be specific," he says of the findings, "but there's a potential that regular servings of tomatoes can have a dramatic effect on cardiovascular risk."
The American Academy of Family Physicians has helpful recommendations for healthy eating and other ways to reduce heart disease risk. And, a chicken ratatouille recipe that includes tomatoes can be found at Stay Young at Heart, a Web offering of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.