Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
It’s no surprise that what people eat has an impact on their health, but trying to pinpoint exactly what diet out of the hundreds out there is most optimal for a long, healthy life can be overwhelming. A new study reports that there is no one optimal diet for longevity, but several general eating patterns that can shift life expectancy.
Published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, the study found that one can reduce their risk of an early death by nearly 20 percent by eating foods from one of four healthy eating patterns: A Mediterranean diet, a plant-based diet, the Alternative Healthy Eating Index and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (more on those below). All four eating patterns emphasize whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes.
Professor and chair of Harvard’s Department of Nutrition, Dr. Frank Hu, said in a statement, “It is critical to examine the associations between DGAs– recommended dietary patterns and long-term health outcomes, especially mortality.”
Hu says there is a lot of flexibility when it comes to eating healthy and dietary choices can be tailored to individual preferences as long as they adhere to the basics of any of the four healthy eating styles. This means that even if you get tired of eating one way, you can switch over to another dietary plan.
The study followed the eating habits of 75,000 women and 44,000 men over 36 years. Every four years, the participants would fill out questionnaires about what food they ate, and each person was scored based on how much they adhered to one or more of the eating patterns.
Participants who remained consistent with their healthy eating patterns could reduce their risk of dying from respiratory disease by 35-46 percent, cardiovascular disease by 6-13 percent and dying from cancer by 7-18 percent.
Most people are familiar with the Mediterranean diet and a plant-based diet, but what about the other half of the recommended four healthy eating patterns?
Alternative Healthy Eating Index
Developed by Harvard researchers, the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) assigns ratings to foods for how well they prevent chronic diseases and illnesses including cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
Some AHEI food choices include a variety of vegetables with a focus on leafy greens, four servings of fruit a day, whole grains, nuts, legumes and vegetable proteins like tofu, fish and healthy fats like olive oil. In following this eating pattern, it’s suggested one avoids potatoes, refined grains, fruit juices and saturated fats.
Participants of the study who followed the AHEI eating pattern reduced risk of death by 20 percent.
Recipes that adhere to AHEI:
Dietary Guidelines for Americans
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is a metric designed to measure diet quality by how closely one follows its recommendations: Focus on variety, nutrient density and portions, limit added sugars, saturated fats and sodium and avoid sugary beverages. The guidelines are less specific on what foods to eat, rather an outline on how to customize nutrient-dense meals, meeting dietary needs and staying within calorie limits.
Within this study, participants who followed this eating pattern had a 19 percent lower risk of dying.
Recipes that adhere to DGA: