We may have heard it before, but the benefits of eating a healthy diet – with plenty of fiber and fresh vegetables – lie not only in a more lithesome figure, but may also contribute to general heart health, according to new research from the University of Leeds in the UK.

The research, published on bmj.com, links greater fiber intake with a lower risk of both cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease. The researchers claim that the risk lowers significantly with every additional 7 g of fiber eaten each day.

And as the holiday season approaches with its host of temptations, this may be a timely reminder to rethink your approach to mealtimes and rediscover the flavors of fresh food.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 600,000 Americans die from heart disease every year – one in every four deaths. But the new research shows that simple lifestyle changes may have a greater impact than previously thought.

The good news is that cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease rates are declining in both the US and many European countries. But a few dietary tweaks may dramatically reduce the risks.

The researchers analyzed data from 22 cohort studies published between January 1, 1990, and August 6, 2013, which recorded total dietary fiber intake and fiber subtypes, as well as cardiovascular events. The data came from the US, Europe, Japan and Australia.

The team looked at total fiber intake but then “fine tuned” the research, breaking the fiber into insoluble – whole grains, potato skins, etc. – soluble – beans and pulses, nuts, oats, barley, etc. – cereals, fruit, vegetables and other sources.

The researchers found that the likelihood of a heart event steadily declines with increased consumption of total, insoluble fruit and vegetable fibers.

Interestingly, they found that soluble fiber was associated with a greater reduction of cardiovascular disease risk, while cereal fiber more greatly reduced the risk of coronary heart disease. Greater intake of fruit fiber was also seen to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

These findings, the researchers say, are in line with current recommendations to increase fiber intake and show how a large risk reduction for adverse heart events is achievable with a few simple dietary changes.

They suggest that the additional 7 g of fiber can be achieved by adding one portion of whole grains (bread, cereal, rice or pasta) and a portion of beans or lentils to your daily diet. Adding two to four extra servings of fruit and vegetables is also an option, they say.

The US Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommend increasing vegetable and fruit intake, advocating a mix of dark green, red and orange vegetables, as well as beans and peas. It also suggests that at least half of all grains eaten should be whole grains.

The authors conclude that high fiber diets “are significantly associated with lower risk of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease and reflect recommendations to increase intake.”

bmj.com also published an accompanying editorial to the study, in which Dr. Robert Baron, professor of Medicine at the University of California, acknowledges that while getting people to add more fiber to their diets is “still challenging,” the recommendation is practical.

He adds that eating more fiber “may turn out to be the most important nutrition recommendation of them all.”