A Harvard Study Just Linked 4 Diets To Longevity: Here's What They Are
If I were to ask you the question "What are your motivations for eating healthier?" Do you know what your answer would be? It may include things like more energy, weight loss, disease prevention, and of course, increasing your chances of living a longer life.
You could go as far as to say that longevity is the ultimate motivation for all nutrition or lifestyle changes, which is why a new Harvard study linking four specific ways of eating to a longer life is making waves.
How eating habits impact longevity.
For this study, researchers analyzed data from more than 75,000 women and 44,000 men, looking for links between specific dietary patterns, adherence to those patterns, and long-term health outcomes. The participants were followed for 36 years (they completed health questionnaires every four years) and at the start of the study, none of them had cardiovascular disease or cancer.
The results, published this month in JAMA Internal Medicine1, showed that participants who scored higher on adherence to one of the four healthy eating patterns were 20% less likely to die during the study period. They also experienced considerably lower rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory disease than the participants with lower adherence scores.
The results also showed that participants who made their diet just 25% healthier could reduce their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 6% to 13%, cancer by 7% to 18%, neurodegenerative disease by 7%, and respiratory disease by as much as 35% to 46%, which is pretty striking.
The research did have some limitations. For example, it relied on the participants' ability to self-report their dietary habits, which opens up some potential for inaccuracy. It also shows a link between dietary patterns and a longer life, or correlation; it doesn't prove that diet directly leads to a longer life, which is known as causation.
Is there a best diet for a long life?
Now, the question I know we're all waiting for: What were those patterns, exactly? The four healthy eating styles were:
- The Mediterranean diet: There's a reason the Mediterranean diet has consistently ranked as one of the healthiest diets for decades. It involves eating high-antioxidant foods like fruits and vegetables and stresses the importance of grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, olive oil, herbs, and spices. It also allowed for regular but limited consumption of poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt. For a more detailed breakdown, here's a 7-day Mediterranean diet meal plan.
- Plant-based diet: A plant-based diet is just what the name suggests—a diet that focuses only on foods that come from plants, not animals. This means nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and legumes and grains. Just note: Plant-based eaters need to be diligent about avoiding artificial ingredients and added sugar, which can sneak their way into many plant-based foods. You can learn more about what a healthy plant-based diet looks like here.
- Traditional healthy diet: This one comes from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are published by the USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and promote plant-based living as well as the consumption of lean animal products and reducing your intake of processed meats, inflammatory fats (like trans fats), and alcohol. It also advocates for quitting sugar.
- Harvard's Alternate Healthy Eating Index: This diet was developed by Harvard researchers specifically for this study and involved rating different foods in terms of their connection to risk factors for chronic disease. In a nutshell, this diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet in that it encourages fresh vegetables and fruit, nuts and legumes, and fish and healthy fats. What stands out about the Alternate Healthy Eating Index is that it specifically recommends avoiding potatoes (all potatoes but especially french fries), fruit juice, and refined grains.
More than one way to eat.
This study leaves us with two highly important takeaway messages. First, it reiterates the fact that adhering to a healthy eating strategy long-term can have a massive impact on your health. And while we kind of knew that already, seeing the numbers is great motivation to double down on our healthy eating habits. Specifically, all of these diets feature whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. And the benefits of such a diet can be complimented by other lifestyle factors. For example, taking a probiotic supplement can help ensure that you're reaping all the benefits of these nutrient-packed foods. Here are a few of the top ones to look into.
The second thing this study taught us is equally if not even more important: There's more than one way to eat healthfully. As a co-author on the study Frank Hu, M.D., Ph.D., explained to CNN, "...this is good news. It means that we have a lot of flexibility in terms of creating our own healthy dietary patterns that can be tailored to individual food preferences, health conditions, and cultures."
It's easy to get wrapped up in the never-ending "eat this, not that" cycle. But this study showed us that as long as we are following a few key principles—like plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes—we can allow for flexibility and change beyond that. "For example, if you are eating a healthy Mediterranean, and after a few months you want to try something different, you can switch…" Hu continued.
By adhering to a diet full of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes, you can massively impact your health. As Hu explained, "It's never too late to adopt healthy eating patterns, and the benefits of eating a healthy diet can be substantial in terms of reducing total premature deaths and different causes of premature death." Other strategies for promoting longevity include managing stress, getting plenty of sleep, and supplementing as needed.
Gretchen Lidicker is an mbg health contributor, content strategist, and the author of CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Hemp-Derived Health and Wellness and Magnesium Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Epsom Salts, Magnesium Oil, and Nature's Relaxation Mineral. She holds a B.S. in biology and earned her master’s degree in physiology with a concentration in complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University.