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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

For Spokane researcher, rush of fame gets heart pumping

A Sacred Heart Medical Center researcher got a taste of celebrity last week when she unveiled results of a study that showed no difference in two popular diets used to treat heart attack patients.

Dr. Katherine R. Tuttle admitted that she was fascinated to discover that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in olive oil and other “healthy” fats was no better than the low-fat, chicken-and-veggies regime long recommended by the American Heart Association.

“Our hypothesis was that the Mediterranean diet would be superior,” Tuttle said. “We showed that the AHA diet is a prudent choice.”

And she was stunned to learn that people following either diet had only one-third the risk of suffering another heart attack, complication or death of those who were treated with typical medical instructions.

But the medical and science director for the Providence Medical Research Center and Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center didn’t realize that her interest was widely shared until she became a star at an American College of Cardiology conference in New Orleans.

“There was a boatload of reporters there,” said Tuttle, who spent most of last week explaining her study of 202 recent heart attack patients to media crews that produced stories that circled the globe.

Even France’s new 24-hour news service weighed in. “I guess I was pleasantly surprised,” said Tuttle, 50, who hopes to learn soon whether the study will be published in a prominent U.S. medical journal.

Begun in 2000 and finished just last fall, Tuttle’s study aimed to conduct a head-to-head comparison of the American Heart Association diet and a Mediterranean-style diet in follow-up care.

Both plans are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, but the Mediterranean diet allows up to 40 percent of total calories from so-called healthy sources of fat such as olive oil and fish. The American Heart diet trims total fat to 30 percent.

Tuttle and her crew asked 50 people who’d had heart attacks in the previous six weeks to follow the American Heart diet, while 51 followed the Mediterranean plan. Subjects met with dieticians for up to two years.

A control group of 101 people received only the typical hospital advice and no individual sessions, Tuttle said. Typically, patients are advised to watch their diets – their cholesterol and salt intakes, for example – but given no specific guidance.

The surprise? There was no difference in whether the dieters followed the Mediterranean plan or the American Heart plan – but a huge difference between those who received specific diet advice and those who didn’t, Tuttle said.

After four years, 83 percent of dieters who were monitored survived without second heart attacks, strokes, hospitalizations or death. Only 53 percent in the control group could say the same.

Too few studies have focused on lifestyle impacts, even though researchers know that lifestyle plays a huge role in illnesses, Tuttle said.

“What people really care about – both professional and regular people – is whether they’re going to die after a heart attack,” she said.

Demonstrating that patients can responsibly choose from two healthful plans was rewarding, Tuttle said.

“What I like about it, too, is that it’s not a drug or a device,” she said. “It’s something that real people can do.”

The American Heart diet has received “short shrift” in recent years, she said, as attention focused on the presumed virtues of the Mediterranean diet. But many of the Spokane-area subjects in her study clearly preferred the more traditional heart association plan. “A lot of the older folks, they didn’t like all the fish and olive oil,” she said. “Now we can say: Take your pick.”

Tuttle’s $700,000 study was paid for largely through a nearly $6 million Washington state settlement in 2000 with vitamin manufacturers who pleaded guilty to price-fixing charges.