NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – After a heart attack, adopting either a low-fat or Mediterranean-style diet similarly and significantly benefits overall and cardiovascular health, research suggests.

The diets provide similar amounts of protein, carbohydrates, cholesterol, and unhealthy saturated fats, but a Mediterranean diet has higher amounts of “healthy” monounsaturated fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.

Either diet, when applied with equal intensity, can be an effective component of post-heart attack lifestyle changes, researchers say. Post-heart attack patients who followed these diets for 4 years significantly reduced their risk for subsequent cardiovascular events, Dr. Katherine R. Tuttle and colleagues found.

Moreover, compared with first heart attack patients receiving usual care, the risk for subsequent death or cardiovascular events, “was about 70 percent lower in dietary intervention participants,” Tuttle told Reuters Health.

The findings are published in The American Journal of Cardiology.

Tuttle, of Sacred Heart Medical Center and the University of Washington School of Medicine in Spokane, Washington, and colleagues recruited 50 patients to actively follow the American Heart Association Step II diet (low-fat) and 51 to follow a Mediterranean-style diet.

The men and women had suffered their first heart attack within 6 weeks of enrolling in the study, and received individual and group dietary counseling for up to 24 months. They were also encouraged to exercise, lose weight and stop smoking if needed.

After 4 years, the researchers found that 8 individuals in each dietary intervention group had either a second heart attack, unstable angina (chest pain on exertion), or stroke. None had died.

When Tuttle’s team assessed a similar group of 101 first-heart attack patients who did not participate in the study but received usual care, they found 33 with subsequent heart attack, heart failure, unstable angina, or stroke, and 7 deaths (3 heart-related).

These findings, though from a modestly sized study population, reflect “real-world” experience as participants bought and prepared their own foods, the researchers note.

Active participation in either a low-fat or a Mediterranean-style diet can be “prudent choices” in those at high-risk for cardiovascular events, Tuttle and colleagues conclude.

SOURCE: The American Journal of Cardiology, June 2008