Aiming to be healthier and practice better eating habits can be an intimidating resolution to set for yourself, especially because there is no "one size fits all" approach to getting healthy. For some people, it may involve limiting how much processed food they consume, while for others, it could be making sure to incorporate more vegetables into each meal. While these goals can certainly look different for every individual, new research shows that there are common eating patterns that are more likely to support and enhance your health—and they may even help lower your risk of premature death.
According to a recent study led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published via Jama Internal Medicine, there are four specific dietary patterns that are linked to a reduced risk of all-cause mortality, as well as a reduced risk of death due cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and cancer. They are the:
Healthy Eating Index 2015 (HEI)
Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI)
Alternate Mediterranean Diet (aMED)
Healthful Plant-based Diet Index (hPDI)
After 36 years of data collected from over 75,000 women and upwards of 44,000 men, which reportedly came from the Nurses' Health Study (1984–2020) and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (1986–2020), researchers discovered that those who stuck very closely to or had a "high adherence" to at least one of these four healthy eating patterns were more likely to experience the reduction in mortality risk than those who had lower adherence scores. Not only that, but participants who had higher adherence to the Alternate Mediterranean Diet and the Alternate Healthy Eating Index also saw a lower risk of death from neurogenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
"It is important to evaluate adherence to DGAs-recommended eating patterns and health outcomes, including mortality, so that timely updates can be made," explained Frank Hu, an author of the study who is also a professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology and chair of the Department of Nutrition, to Science Daily. "Our findings will be valuable for the 2025–2030 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is being formed to evaluate current evidence surrounding different eating patterns and health outcomes."
What is the Healthy Eating Index 2015?
The Healthy Eating Index 2015 was designed by the USDA and is set to align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This index is a way of scoring how well someone's diet aligns with the current guidelines. There are 13 food components in the index, broken down into two categories: adequacy components, which are highly encouraged, and moderation components, which are the types of food that you're encouraged to limit.
Examples of the adequacy components include fruit, vegetables, whole grains, seafood, and dairy, while moderation components include refined grains, added sugars, and saturated fat. With the adequacy components, higher intakes equal a higher score, but the opposite is true with moderation components. For these, lower intakes equate to a higher score. (For more detailed information on the scoring system, you can check out their Components and Scoring Standards.)
For the Healthy Eating Index 2015, a higher score overall means that you're more closely following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and therefore are maintaining an overall better diet quality.
What is the Alternate Healthy Eating Index?
The Alternate Healthy Eating Index was created by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It is similar to the USDA's Healthy Eating Index, but this scoring method focus more closely on foods that are linked to chronic disease. And while the new study from Harvard found a strong connection between AHEI and reduced risk of mortality, the benefits of this index don't stop there. One 2012 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that adhering closely to this pattern could reduce your risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes, as well.
According to Harvard Health, there are several key food components you must incorporate in order to score higher on the AHEI. These components include vegetables, whole grains, fruit, legumes, vegetable proteins, fish, and healthy fats. However, this is a scoring system that Harvard says may not be practical to use at home.
What is the Alternate Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet, which mimics the eating patterns of countries like Greece, Italy, and other surrounding areas, has gained enormous popularity for its proven benefits toward heart health, reduction of diabetes risk, and cognition. Components of the Mediterranean diet include consuming plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and legumes, while limiting your consumption of red and processed meat, refined sugars, and saturated fat.
When it comes to measuring adherence to the Mediterranean diet, there are two types of indexes: the Traditional Mediterranean score (tMED), and the Alternate Mediterranean Diet score (aMED)—which is the one mentioned in the new Harvard study. According to Scientific Reports, the aMED is a way of noting how well the traditional Mediterranean principles were adapted in non-Mediterranean cultures.
The two indexes are only slightly different. Whereas the tMED places fruit and nuts into one category and also includes dairy, the aMED index features nine components: fruit, nuts, fish, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, red and processed meats, alcohol, and ratio of monounsaturated fats to saturated fats. When it comes to the Alternate Mediterranean diet score, each component is assigned a one or zero points and then calculated to determine a score between zero and nine; a higher score represents a closer adherence to the Mediterranean diet, which is linked to a lower risk of mortality.
What is the Healthful Plant-based Diet?
The new study from Harvard T.H. Chan reveals that higher adherence to this healthful plant-based diet is associated with a healthier life and greater chances of longevity. Plant-based diets have been linked to lower BMI, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower risk of hypertension, but it's important to know that not all plant-based diets are equal in nutritional value. This is why the Healthful Plant-based Diet index (hPDI)—which is a way of using a scoring system to see how closely someone is following a healthy, plant-based diet—can be useful in understanding the nutritional value of what you're is consuming to determine whether or not your current diet is truly benefiting your health.
According to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the hPDI gives a positive score to "healthy plant foods" like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, legumes, oils, coffee, and tea. Additionally, it assigns a reverse score to foods like refined grains, sweetened beverages, sweets, and fries. There is also an Unhealthy Plant-based Diet Index (uPDI), where the healthier plant foods receive a reverse score and the "less healthy" ones receive a positive score.
The key takeaways
All four of these eating patterns are unique in their own ways, but you can probably spot the significant similarities between them. These patterns are all focused around eating more healthy, plant-based foods, with specific attention placed on increasing your vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts, healthy fats, and whole grains, while lowering your intake of refined grains, added sugar, and saturated fat.
It seems that all four of the patterns mentioned in the new Harvard study would prove too complicated to try and calculate yourself on a regular basis, but these structures are extremely helpful in providing guidelines for how you can eat in a way that helps reduce your risk of disease and provides you with better overall health.
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