A new study conducted by researchers at Harvard University has found that four common healthy eating patterns can reduce the risk of premature death by up to 20%. The study, which was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, aimed to find a link between the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) and premature death from disease.
Dr. Frank Hu, Professor and Chair of Harvard's Nutrition Department, said in a statement that their findings on the health effects of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines are the most profound yet. “It is critical to examine the associations between DGAs-recommended dietary patterns and long-term health outcomes, especially mortality,” Hu said.
The Four Healthy Eating Patterns
The study analyzed four healthy eating styles, all of which emphasize whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes: the Mediterranean diet, a balanced plant-based diet, a traditional healthy diet based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the Alternative Healthy Eating Index.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the importance of quality sources and "filling your plate" with nutrient-dense whole foods and grains, with an emphasis on fresh produce, lean proteins, such as fish and chicken, and, of course, olive oil rich in antioxidants.
A healthy plant-based diet is similar to the Mediterranean in that it focuses on eating more plant-based foods, but eliminates animal products, including cheese. For the Harvard study, researchers also put points into this category for alcohol consumption, as well as "unhealthy" versions of plant-based foods, such as breaded and fried vegetables.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans' Healthy Diet Index, a metric designed by the USDA and HHS to measure the quality of a diet consistent with their recommendations, promotes plant-based foods as well as lean animal protein and dairy products, and discourages red and processed meat, added sugar, unhealthy fats and alcohol.
The Alternative Healthy Eating Index, developed by Harvard researchers for this study, ranks various foods and nutrients associated with a low risk of chronic disease.
Reduced Risk of Death
The study found that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as well as any of the three alternative diets, were associated with a lower risk of death.
People who followed any of the four healthy eating patterns were less likely to die from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory and neurodegenerative diseases. The study followed 75,000 women who participated in the Nurses' Health Study and more than 44,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study - two groups of respondents compiled by Harvard - over a 36-year period.
Participants were scored on indices that measured how closely they followed each eating style, according to questionnaires administered every four years. None had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease at the time they started the study, and few were smokers.
Participants who changed their diet to make it 25 percent healthier—integrating just one of the healthy eating plans into their lives—could potentially reduce their risk of dying from cancer by 7 percent to 18 percent, and cardiovascular disease by 6 percent to 13 percent.
Then respiratory diseases by 35 percent to 46 percent and neurodegenerative diseases by 7 percent. Hu hopes his findings will appease those who get bored with strict diets: “It means that we have a lot of flexibility in terms of creating our own healthy dietary patterns that can be tailored to individual food preferences, health conditions and cultures,” he told CNN on Monday.