Women who reported consuming the most fruits and vegetables (eight to nine servings a day for a 2,000-calorie diet) in their 20s were 40 percent less likely to have calcified plaque in their arteries in their 40s compared with those who ate the least amount (three to four servings a day) during the same time period. This association persisted even after researchers accounted for other lifestyle behaviors, as well as for their current-day diets, further demonstrating the role dietary patterns at younger ages may play.
"These findings confirm the concept that plaque development is a lifelong process, and that process can be slowed down with a healthy diet at a young age," Miedema said. "This is often when dietary habits are established, so there is value in knowing how the choices we make in early life have lifelong benefits."
Surprisingly, the same benefit did not hold true for men, which warrants further investigation.
"Several other studies have also suggested that a diet high in fruits and vegetables is less protective in men, but we do not have a good biological reason for this lack of association," Miedema said, adding that the study had less power to evaluate men (62.7 percent were female vs. 37.3 percent male).
The study included 2,508 participants from the ongoing government-sponsored Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, which is evaluating how heart disease develops throughout adulthood. CARDIA began in the mid-1980s with a group of men and women 18-30 years of age and has collected extensive data on medical, socioeconomic, psychosocial and behavioral characteristics.