BOSTON — Dieting and eating healthy have been longtime keys to feeling good. Now, a new study finds following at least one of four healthy eating patterns decreases a person’s risk of premature death.
Results from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health team are consistent with the current Dietary Guidelines for America (DGA), which advise eating a varied and expansive diet to meet optimal nutrition needs and support a healthy lifestyle.
“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are intended to provide science-based dietary advice that promotes good health and reduces major chronic diseases. Thus, it is critical to examine the associations between DGAs-recommended dietary patterns and long-term health outcomes, especially mortality,” says corresponding author Frank Hu, Fredrick J. Stare Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology and chair of the Department of Nutrition, in a university release.
So far, only a few studies have evaluated whether increased compliance to DGAs-recommended dietary patterns links with long-term total and cause-specific mortality risk. To delve deeper, the Harvard researchers utilized health data collected over a period of 36 years from 75,230 women from the Nurses’ Health Study and 44,085 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. The participants didn’t have any cardiovascular disease or cancer at the start of each study, and they completed dietary questionnaires every four years.
What are the 4 healthy eating patterns?
Their responses were scored based on the Healthy Eating Index 2015, Alternate Mediterranean Diet, Healthful Plant-based Diet Index, and Alternate Healthy Eating Index, which are the four dietary pattern indexes. All of them overlap and lean toward an emphasis on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes, with only minor differences across each scale.
If a person had a higher score in at least one index, it corresponded to a lower risk of premature death from all causes, as well as lower cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory disease scores as well. Further, higher scores on the Alternate Mediterranean Diet and Alternate Healthy Eating Indexes were specifically linked to a decreased risk of death from neurogenerative conditions. These findings were similar across Hispanic, Caucasian, and African American populations.
DGA recommendations from 2015 to 2020 endorse the notion that eating patterns can and should be tailored to individual food traditions and preferences. Since guidelines are updated every five years by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA), this team is hopeful that their work supports efforts to provide high-quality and evidence-based nutrition recommendations for people in the United States in future years.
“It is important to evaluate adherence to DGAs-recommended eating patterns and health outcomes, including mortality, so that timely updates can be made,” Hu says. “Our findings will be valuable for the 2025-2030 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is being formed to evaluate current evidence surrounding different eating patterns and health outcomes.”
What do the 4 eating patterns measure?
If you’re looking for a new diet in the new year, here’s what each dieting index measures. The Healthy Eating Index provides recommended amounts across all the main food groups, including fruits, vegetables, and dairy.
The Alternate Mediterranean Diet score delves deeper into how people are adhering to the popular diet, which emphasizes eating fruits, fish, nuts. The index also keeps track of alcohol intake and other habits.
Meanwhile, the Healthful Plant-based Diet Index ranks a person’s consumption of healthy plant-based foods (like vegetables and whole grains) against unhealthy plant-based foods (refined grains and high-sugar foods) and animal-based foods (meat).
Finally, the Alternate Healthy Eating Index looks at everything from eating vegetables to consuming sugary drinks.
“The Healthy Eating Index and the Alternative Healthy Eating Index are similar, but the AHEI is more oriented toward reducing the risk of chronic disease,” says Natalie McCormick, a research fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The findings are published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.