There’s a lot of nutritional advice out there, but the science linking food and health isn’t always clear. A new study on the subject is one of the most comprehensive to date and has identified four eating patterns associated with a lower risk of mortality.
By analyzing the eating patterns of 119,315 people over the age of 36, researchers compared those patterns to four sets of recognized healthy eating regimens: the Healthy Eating Index, the Alternate Mediterranean Diet, the Healthful Plant-based Diet Index, and the Alternate Healthy Eating Index.
Adhering closely to at least one of these patterns reduced the risk of premature death from any cause and cardiovascular disease, cancer and respiratory disease, the study showed. While the diets differ, they all contain whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.
That’s in line with the Official Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), the researchers note – guidelines that recommend multiple healthy eating patterns that suit individual preferences, cultures and health needs and offer a host of tips on how to eat in a way that doesn’t harm our bodies.
“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are intended to provide evidence-based nutritional advice that promotes good health and reduces major chronic disease,” said Frank Hu, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts.
“Thus, it is critical to examine the associations between dietary patterns recommended by DGAs and long-term health outcomes, particularly mortality.”
For example, the Healthy Eating Index provides recommended amounts for all major food groups, including fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. The Alternate Mediterranean Diet score is comprehensive and includes data on fruits, fish, nuts, alcohol and more.
Then there’s the Healthful Plant-based Diet Index, which ranks healthy plant foods (such as vegetables and whole grains) against unhealthy plant foods (such as refined grains and sugary foods) and animal foods.
Finally, the Alternate Healthy Eating Index covers everything from vegetables to sugary drinks, especially how it relates to chronic disease.
According to the results of this latest study, it is an excellent idea to follow at least one of these approaches.
“It is important to evaluate adherence to DGA recommended eating patterns and health outcomes, including mortality, so that timely updates can be made,” says Hu.
While the study can’t say for sure that these specific dietary habits cause longer life—and it’s based on self-reported data rather than scientifically documented data—the connection is clear enough to show the health benefits of eating well.
As noted by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 6 in 10 adults in the US live with at least one chronic disease related to their diet. Meanwhile, compliance with these guidelines has not improved much in recent years.
There’s no shortage of studies on nutrition and health, although recommendations can vary depending on age and how we’re built. Legumes, whole grains and vegetables are often recommended, while fish, eggs and dairy are generally best eaten in moderation, according to experts.
What is clear is how important it is to eat healthily throughout our lives if we want those lives to last as long as possible. That’s part of the job of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which will be updated in the near future.
“Our findings will be valuable to the 2025-2030 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is being formed to evaluate the current evidence on various eating patterns and health outcomes,” says Hu.
The research has been published in JAMA Internal Medicine.