Long-term healthy diet linked with lower risks of death

Camille Bienvenu
Mon, 17 Jul 2017
Long-term healthy diet linked with lower risks of death
A new study has found that improving the diet is a marathon, not a sprint, for which consistency is the key.

The research suggests that maintaining the healthiest diet as possible for at least 12 years can lead to improvements in risk factors for heart disease, a common complication of diabetes, as well as risks for death.

According to researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, improving the diet by only 20 per cent over 12 years leads to an 8 to 17 per cent decrease in death.

Conversely, when the quality of the diet gradually goes down, there is a surge in mortality risks, up to between 6 and 12 per cent.

The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that people who maintain a good diet over 12 years decrease their risks of death by 9 to 14 per cent.

The researchers examined data on 47,994 women in the Nurses' Health Study and 25,745 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study from 1998 through 2010.

Changes in the diet over the 12 years were assessed using Alternate Mediterranean Diet (AMD) scores, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet score, the Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) and others.

Here, the AMD, DASH and AHEI represent what researchers consider to be good eating patterns, which also happen to be fairly easy to follow and sustain.

The participants completed food frequency questionnaires with information on diet at the start and every four years for 12 years.

They also recorded yearly information on lifestyle and risk factors for heart disease, including smoking, oral contraceptive use, and diabetes markers.

The researchers used statistical models to find out the effect of each different diet change when maintained more than 10 years on total and cause-specific mortality.

When researchers analysed people with the AHEI score, those with a greater increase in diet quality were more active and consumed less alcohol. When analysed against the DASH score, healthier eaters had a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) 12 years later.

With just a 13 to 33 per cent increase in diet quality over a 12-year period, the risk of death was lower by 14% when assessed with the AHEI, 11% with the AMD, and 9% with DASH.

Overall, all diets examined in this study led to some degree of improvement in lifespan, but it is not necessary to conform to a single diet to achieve a healthy eating pattern, as long as you keep improving it.

There is one caveat to the findings, which is that most participants in the study were health professionals themselves, who were possibly already concerned about diet.

What's interesting about this study is that it shows healthy diets tend to share common features, including higher intakes of fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and lower intakes of red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and refined grains.
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