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You can reduce your risk of early death from any cause by nearly 20% just by eating more foods from your chosen four healthy eating patterns, according to a new study.
People who more closely followed any of the healthy eating patterns — all of which focus on eating more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes — were also less likely to die from cancer, heart disease, vascular diseases and respiratory and neurodegenerative diseases.
The results of the study, published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicineshow that “there is more than one way to eat well and reap the health benefits,” said Dr. David Katz, a lifestyle medicine specialist who was not involved in the study.
People often get bored with one way of eating, said study co-author Dr. Frank Hu, “so that’s good news. This means we have a lot of flexibility in terms of creating our own healthy dietary patterns that can be tailored to individual dietary preferences, health conditions and cultures.
“For example, if you eat a healthy Mediterranean diet and after a few months you want to try something different, you can switch to a DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet or switch to a semi-vegetarian diet,” said Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology and Chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health TH Chan. “Or you can follow the US Dietary Guidelines and create your own healthy eating plate.”
The study tracked the eating habits of 75,000 women participating in Nurses’ Health Survey and more than 44,000 men in Follow-up survey of health professionals over 36 years. None of the men or women had cardiovascular disease at the start of the study, and few were smokers. All completed dietary questionnaires every four years.
“This is one of the largest and longest-running cohort studies to examine recommended dietary patterns and the long-term risk of premature death and death from major diseases,” Hu said.
Hu and his team assessed participants on how closely they followed four healthy eating styles that were in sync with the current US Dietary Guidelines.
One is the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish and plenty of olive oil, Hu said. “This dietary pattern emphasizes healthy fats, especially monounsaturated fats, in addition to plant-based foods and moderate alcohol,” he said.
The following is called a healthy plant-based diet, which also focuses on eating more plant-based products, but gives negative points for all animal products and all alcohol.
“It even discourages relatively healthy options, such as fish or some dairy products,” Hu said, adding that the meal plan frowns on unhealthy plant foods such as potato products.
“So you can imagine that vegetarians are probably on the higher end of this diet,” he said, “and people who eat a lot of animal products or highly processed carbohydrate foods are going to be on the lower end of this score.”
The Healthy Eating Index tracks whether people follow the basic U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which emphasize healthy, plant-based foods, frown on red and processed meat, and discourage eating added sugar, unhealthy fats and alcohol, Hu said.
The Alternative Healthy Eating Index was developed at Harvard, Hu said, and uses “the best available evidence” to include foods and nutrients most strongly associated with lower risk of chronic disease.
“We specifically included nuts, seeds, whole grains and lower consumption of red and processed meats and sugar-sweetened beverages,” he added. “Moderate consumption of alcohol is permitted.”
After each person’s eating pattern was assessed, participants were divided into five groups, or quintiles, from highest to lowest adherence to one or more of the eating patterns.
“The highest quintile of diet quality compared to the lowest was associated with approximately a 20 percent reduction in all-cause mortality,” said Katz, president and founder of the nonprofit Real Health Initiativea global coalition of experts dedicated to evidence-based lifestyle medicine.
The study also found a reduction in the risk of death from certain chronic diseases if people improved their diet over time, Hu said.
Participants who improved their healthy diet by 25% could reduce their risk of death from cardiovascular disease by a range of 6% to 13% and death from cancer by 7% to 18%, he said. There was up up to a 7% reduction in the risk of death from a neurodegenerative disease such as dementia.
“The reduction in mortality from respiratory disease was actually much greater, reducing the risk by 35% to 46%.” said Hu.
The study was based on participants’ self-reports of food preferences and therefore only showed a correlation, not direct cause and effect, between eating habits and health outcomes. Still, the fact that the study asked about diets every four years over such a long period of time added weight to the findings, Hu said.
What is the conclusion of this large, long-term study?
“It’s never too late to adopt healthy eating patterns, and the benefits of a healthy diet can be significant in terms of reducing overall premature death and various causes of premature death,” Hu said.
“People also have a lot of flexibility in terms of creating their own healthy eating pattern. But the general principles—eating more plant-based foods and fewer portions of red meat, processed meats, added sugar, and sodium—should be in place, no matter what kind of diet you want to create.
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