IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

These 4 healthy eating patterns are associated with a lower risk of death, study finds

There's no "one size fits all" approach, but all share common themes.

Your dietary pattern may help predict how long you live. This is the conclusion from a new study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association assessing diet quality and mortality. The study found that individuals that consumed a more nutrient-dense diet were less likely to die early.

The eating habits of 119,315 individuals (75,230 women and 44,085 men) from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study were assessed over 36 years. During that time frame, they evaluated adherence and outcomes related to four different dietary patterns, all of which adhere in some capacity to the United States Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The four eating patterns analyzed were:

  • The Healthy Eating Index 2015 (HEI), which measures diet quality and adherence and utilizes guidelines from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in its scoring assessment.
  • The Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), which was created by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as an alternative to the original HEI. Like the HEI, it provides scoring but focuses more on reducing chronic disease risk.
  • The Alternate Mediterranean Diet (AMED), which measures adaptation to the Mediterranean diet principles.
  • The Healthful Plant-based Diet Index (HPDI), which measures adherence to a healthy plant-based diet.

The study found there are multiple ways to adhere to a healthy diet

Individuals with the greatest adherence to at least one of the healthier eating indexes had the lowest risk of death compared with individuals with the lowest adherence. This outcome was seen amongst all four healthy eating indexes. Additionally, this outcome was consistent amongst multiple racial and ethnic groups. It was also seen in a dose-dependent fashion (the greater the score, the lower the risk for early death from cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and cancer). Higher adherence scores for AMED and AHEI were further associated with a lower risk of neurodegenerative disease mortality.

There were several key takeaways from the study. First, it emphasized that there are multiple ways to adhere to a healthier way of eating. Since there is no “one size fits all” diet, it demonstrated that different dietary patterns could be adapted to any ethnic or personal preference. Second, there were many similarities between the four eating patterns. For example, all eating habits were nutrient-dense, providing abundant vitamins and minerals. They were also more slanted towards more plant-based approaches. Dr. Frank Hu, chair of department of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was the study’s lead author. He tells, "Although these diets differ in some aspects, they all include high amounts of healthy plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, and lower amounts of refined grains, added sugars, sodium, and red and processed meats."

For a longer life, focus on these 5 dietary habits:

1. Focus on fiber

One of the best ways to consume more plants is to focus on getting more fiber. A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis in the journal Lancet found that adequate fiber intake (between 25g to 29g per day) was also associated with a reduction in risk of all causes and decreases in heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer.

2. Nosh on nuts

Nut consumption was emphasized in all four eating patterns in the study. Nuts are high in healthy fats, which may help increase satiety and fullness, a key component of weight management. They have also been associated with better brain health and may lower the risk of heart disease.

3. Get colorful

Color is vital in the plant world and comes from compounds called phytonutrients that provide both hue and benefit to the plant. Studies show that consuming colorful fruits and vegetables can also lead to a longer life.

4. Opt for plant and marine sources of protein

Beans, legumes and fish were highlighted in several of the eating patterns. The AMED pattern, for example, encouraged the consumption of fatty fish, like salmon, that can provide abundant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. In contrast, beans and legumes provide fiber in addition to protein.

5. Find flexibility

The study demonstrated that healthy eating can be tailored to the individual — and that following multiple approaches within the common themes could lead to significant health benefits. “In order for someone to stick to a healthy diet long-term, one needs to enjoy it. So it is important for individuals to adapt these healthy eating patterns to their own food and cultural preferences. Also, one does not need to stick to only one dietary approach for their whole life. To enhance variety and adherence, one can switch between these various healthy diets or create their own flexitarian diet. However, the core healthy eating principles should remain the same: Eat more minimally-processed plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes; eat less red meat and ultra-processed foods high in sugar, sodium, and refined starch,” Hu explains.

If overhauling your dietary pattern seems overwhelming, consider this — baby steps will go further than no movement at all. Hu says that many healthy dietary patterns have been associated with, not only a longer life, but a reduction in chronic disease risk complications as well. Hu explains that, for example, "a greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of cardiovascular complications among people with diabetes." Also, healthy eating patterns have been associated with better survival among people with breast or colorectal cancer."

As Hu says, "it's never too late to adopt a healthy diet.”