Study finds reduced caloric intake leads to a healthier heart

| Contributing Reporter

Heart health may seem like a faraway issue for college students, but it turns out that the time to start watching your diet may be sooner than you think.

A recent study from the Washington University School of Medicine has found a connection between reduced caloric intake and a healthier heart—an issue that, while it may seem irrelevant for college students, is rooted in habits developed in one’s younger years.

In the study, researchers observed the heart rate variability, how well the heart adapts to changes in activity by beating faster or slower, of two groups of study participants: those on a standard Western diet and those with a 30 percent caloric reduction.

The participants who had been maintaining long-term balanced diets with fewer calories had significantly higher heart rate variability than the participants who ate a standard Western diet.

“If you stand up, your blood has to increase the amount of blood that it supplies to the organs, and the pressure and the heart rate are increasing so that you can perform the activities that you want to do,” Luigi Fontana, the study’s senior author and research associate professor of medicine, said. “As you get older, the adaptation gets worse.”

According to Fontana, the reduced calorie diet seemed to slow the decline in heart rate variability as the participants aged.

“If you plot some of these markers of heart variability on typical age-dependent values, these people ‘look’ twenty years younger,” Fontana said.

The road to heart problems can begin as early as during one’s college years, according to the study’s lead author Phyllis Stein, a research associate professor of medicine.

Stein said the unhealthy habits that many students develop in college, such as frequent inadequate sleep and overeating, have negative long-term effects.

“There’s a lot of evidence that the beginning of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases [is] not actually when you are 45 years old and showing the signs, but when you are younger,” Stein said.

Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition, believes that the study supports the theory that the human body works more efficiently with a higher quality of calories and not necessarily with a greater quantity.

“For students, it is an easy message, but the translation into action is where people have trouble,” Diekman said.

Diekman suggested several opportunities for students to gain understanding about balanced diets, including meeting with her through the office of Student Health, attending “Dine with the Dietitian” sessions or logging onto, which calculates individualized calorie consumption in different food groups by factoring in height, weight, gender and activity level.

She also advised students to first assess their eating habits for a couple of days before plotting out gradual and maintainable changes in order to achieve healthier diets.

“When you’ve got academics, a social life and extracurriculars, doing a [nutrition] overhaul is just one more thing to cause your life to be in chaos,” Diekman said. “And one of the things we unfortunately know is that when life is in chaos, food is the answer.”