There are many different healthy eating patterns that may help you live longer, a new study suggests — as long as these dietary habits focus on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes, that is.
For the study, researchers at Harvard University examined data on more than 75,000 women and more than 44,000 men who completed a series of dietary questionnaires over 36 years starting when they were in their early fifties. None of the participants had a history of cancer or heart disease.
Scientists scored their diets on the basis of how closely they followed one of four different eating patterns, including a plant-based diet and the Mediterranean diet. The two other diets were the Healthy Eating Index, which aligns with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the Harvard-developed Alternative Healthy Eating Index, which takes into account how what we eat relates to chronic disease risk.
People who most closely followed any one of these healthy eating patterns were up to 20 percent less likely to die of all causes during the study and were also much less likely to die of typical causes like cancer, heart disease, and respiratory illnesses, the researchers reported January 9 in JAMA Internal Medicine. Individuals from all racial and ethnic groups in the study had lower odds of premature death when they followed any of these healthy eating patterns.
“The good news from this study is that almost everyone can benefit from adopting healthy dietary patterns regardless of race and ethnicity,” says Frank Hu, MD, MPH, PhD, the senior study author, a professor, and the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
No One Culture Has the ‘Healthiest Diet’
One limitation of the study is that researchers relied on participants to accurately recall and report on their dietary habits over time, making it possible that people misrepresented how they really ate.
Even so, the results offer fresh evidence that U.S. dietary guidelines supporting a broad range of eating patterns — including a variety of foods popular in different cultures — can indeed help people lead longer, healthier lives.
“Because there exists a variety of healthy dietary patterns, one does not need to stick to only one dietary pattern,” Dr. Hu says. “In practice, individuals may choose a healthy eating pattern according to their health conditions and cultural traditions.”
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“The fact that this finding was consistent across racial and ethnic groups is not surprising, since we are all biologically the same,” says Michal Melamed, MD, a professor of medicine, pediatrics, and epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“People can find healthy eating patterns in every culture, as long as they stay away from highly processed foods and saturated fats,” Dr. Melamed says. “Try to follow a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts. Eating fish and other sources of unsaturated fats is also good.”