Have you ever wondered whether healthful diets make a real difference? A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that they do. Moreover, the scientists found that there is not just one good diet; there are many.
A Closer Look at Healthful Diets:
The investigators analyzed the diets of more than 75,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study and 44,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (JAMA Internal Medicine, Jan. 9, 2023). They collected data from the Nurses’ Health Study between 1984 and 2020. The Health Professionals Follow-Up Study provided data from 1986 through 2020. These longitudinal cohort studies offered detailed dietary data over more than 3.5 million person-years. During the 36 years of follow-up, 54,163 volunteers died.
The investigators analyzed participants’ eating patterns to see how closely they approached one of four different standards. Researchers used the Healthy Eating Index 2015, the Alternate Mediterranean Diet score, the Healthful Plant-based Diet Index or the Alternate Healthy Eating Index.
What the Study Reveals:
People who scored well on any of these healthful diets were less likely to die during the study. In addition, people following either the Alternate Mediterranean Diet or the Alternate Healthy Eating pattern were less likely to die from a neurodegenerative disorder such as Parkinson or Alzheimer disease. The researchers conclude that multiple healthy eating patterns can be tailored to individual tastes and will help us live longer, healthier lives.
What Were People Eating?
Healthy Eating Index 2015:
The Healthy Eating Index 2015 gives points for total fruits as well as whole fruits. People also get points for eating total vegetables, greens and beans, and whole grains. Dairy foods, total protein foods, seafood and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated also earn points. On the other hand, scorers deduct points for refined grains, sodium, added sugars and saturated fats.
Alternate Mediterranean Diet:
Researchers developed the Alternate Mediterranean Diet score to be able to compare what Americans eat to an ideal Mediterranean-style eating pattern. Eaters earn points for exceeding average consumption of vegetables, fruits and nuts, legumes, fish and seafood. People who consume more monounsaturated fats than saturated fats also boost their scores. You’ll find monounsaturated fats in olive oil or avocado oil as well as a few other foods. In addition, people’s scores rise if they consume less than average alcohol, dairy products and meat.
Healthful Plant-based Diet Index:
Another of the healthful diets the researchers used as a measuring stick is the healthful plant-based diet (Journal of the American College of Cardiology, July 25, 2017). This emphasizes healthful plant foods rather than things like refined grains or sugar-sweetened beverages. Examples include whole grain breakfast cereal (including oatmeal), brown rice or popcorn as whole grains. For fruits, people got points for raisins or grapes, bananas, watermelon, fresh apples or pears, oranges, grapefruit or berries. In the vegetable category, there are too many to list, including tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, squash, eggplant, sweet potatoes, spinach and many others. Legumes like beans, lentils, lima beans and tofu boost scores. Vegetable oils, tea and coffee are permitted.
Alternate Healthy Eating Index:
The last of the healthful diets that these researchers reviewed is the Alternate Healthy Eating Index. Researchers at Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health developed this index with an eye toward factors that may reduce chronic disease. When scientists use it for a study like this, the scoring can get a bit technical. However, to maximize your own diet based on this “report card,” you would want to eat:
- at least five servings of vegetables a day, especially green leaves
- at least four servings of fruit, but skip the juice
- five to six servings of whole grains
- at least one daily serving of nuts, legumes or tofu
- one serving of fish a week
- vegetable oils such as olive oil, canola oil or safflower oil instead of butter
As you can see, there is quite a bit of overlap among all these healthful diets. But there is also plenty of room for a creative cook to make delicious meals from many different cuisines. If you are looking for inspiration, we’d suggest our book, Recipes & Remedies From The People’s Pharmacy.