- Researchers say an alternate Mediterranean diet and 3 other healthy eating plans can help reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.
- The 4 diets all recommend eating more fruits and vegetables, consuming less red meat, and choosing whole grains over refined grains.
- Experts say you can achieve extra health benefits by limiting your eating window and consuming foods with a variety of different colors throughout the day.
You can guard against chronic disease with healthy eating.
But what does that actually look like?
New research led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published today in JAMA Internal Medicine reports that participants who followed at least one of four healthy eating patterns were less likely than others to die from heart disease, cancer, or respiratory disease.
The researchers said the results remained consistent across different demographics.
Data used was collected over 36 years from 75,230 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study and 44,085 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.
Participants had no history of heart disease or cancer at the beginning of the study. Each of them completed dietary questionnaires every four years.
The eating patterns examined include:
- Healthy Eating Index 2015
- Alternate Mediterranean Diet
- Healthful Plant-based Diet Index
- Alternate Healthy Eating Index
All eating patterns share key ingredients including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes, although other components including meat consumption differ across different eating patterns.
The study findings are consistent with the current Dietary Guidelines for America, which recommend multiple healthy eating patterns, say the researchers in a press release.
This is one of few studies that have actually evaluated whether greater adherence to dietary patterns that followed the dietary guidelines is associated with long-term risk of total and cause-specific mortality.
What nutrition experts have to say
“It’s hard for me to select one of the indexes over another,” said Amy Bragagnini, MS, RD, CSO, an oncology nutrition specialist at Trinity Health Lacks Cancer Center in Michigan and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Bragagnini told Healthline that she recommends the backbones of all the healthy eating indexes in her own practice. Why? Because they all include several key components of balanced eating.
She says components of healthy eating include:
- High intake of a variety of vegetables and fruits daily
- Consumption of whole grains vs. refined grains
- Less red meat
- More plant-based lean proteins in addition to poultry and fish
- Limited intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and foods with added sugar.
If she had to choose, though, Bragagnini says the Alternate Healthy Eating Index has many recommendations that can be optimal for overall health.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, the lead dietitian and manager of Wellness Nutrition Services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness & Preventive Medicine in Ohio, added that while these dietary guidelines are a helpful starting point, they are geared toward healthy individuals and do not always address personalization.
Choosing a specific dietary pattern for a client involves a higher degree of personalization, she told Healthline.
These personalizations may include assessing cultural and religious preferences as well as environmental challenges.
Curious about the Mediterranean diet?
Of all the eating patterns, the Mediterranean diet is perhaps the most popular.
Kirkpatrick says the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest dietary patterns based on robust data and long-term sustainability. It’s associated with many health benefits, including reducing the risk of chronic disease and premature death.
“The beauty of the diet is that, in many ways, consumers who are not ready to tackle all the components at once can take pieces and parts and still find benefits,” she says.
For example, simply shifting from having less red and processed meat to having more wild fish and plant-based sources of protein can help.
Bragagnini adds that the Mediterranean-based diet is not only healthy but also delicious.
“The best part about the Mediterranean diet for me is the flavor,” she noted.
Finding a dietary plan that fits
When discussing various eating styles with her clients Bragagnini says she tries to meet her patients where they are.
“For example, if someone is only consuming one fruit and vegetable a day, I would likely not recommend they immediately begin choosing 5 servings of veggies and 4 servings of fruit each day,” she says.
Instead, she might suggest they increase their intake of produce by one additional serving a day, providing them with usable ways to do this.
“Hopefully this change will become a healthy habit for them and allow them to slowly make further changes in increasing their fruit and vegetable intake,” she said.
Bragagnini explains the same thing goes for sugar intake.
“Instead of encouraging my patients to wipe out every bit of added sugar from their diet, I advise them to begin checking labels and get curious about how much they are already eating,” she said.
“Then I recommend slowly changing up the sugary beverages and foods they typically consume and I make suggestions for alternatives that can be equally as satisfying,” she added.
Expert tips on healthy eating
Talk to a dietitian
Eating a healthy and balanced diet can be challenging for many people, Bragagnini said.
If you can relate to this, she recommends starting by booking a consultation appointment with a registered dietitian.
“Recommendations from registered dietitians are tailored to each specific person and can help folks to make goals to slowly implement healthy and sustainable changes into their lives,” she said.
Aim for more fruits and vegetables every day
The second way to help lower disease risk is to aim to increase the intake of fruits and vegetables, says Bragagnini.
“Not only are fruits and veggies filled with disease-fighting antioxidants and phytochemicals, but they also are rich in fiber, relatively low in calories, and can help consumers to feel full and satisfied without the risk of unwanted weight gain,” she said.
Another benefit of fruits and vegetables is that because of the high-water content in fruits and veggies, they can also help people to adequately hydrate throughout the day.
Tap into your support system
Bragagnini’s third recommendation is to get your family involved. This includes discussing meal planning for the week ahead and then making a dedicated grocery list.
“I find that the majority of my patients miss this step, and end up skipping breakfast, grabbing fast food for lunch, or scrounging around for whatever they can find for dinner,” she said.
A planned grocery list can allow your family to decide on a few dinner options for the week.
“You can pick up foods that will pack well in lunches and you can make ahead healthy breakfast options such as veggie and egg-filled muffin cups, overnight oats, and pre-made fruit smoothies,” Bragagnini said.
Looking for more ways to shift toward a healthier eating pattern? Kirkpatrick offers the following suggestions.
Kirkpatrick’s tips for eating to lower disease risk
- Aim to eat 5 to 7 different colors every day. Doing so will mean you are getting a variety of nutrients from plants.
- Consume more fiber. This often will involve first assessing how much fiber you are currently consuming and, if necessary, bumping those numbers up by consuming more non-starchy vegetables, lower-sugar fruits, and unrefined whole grains.
- Assess barriers to success. This may involve taking a deeper look at your sleep patterns, stress management, and social support of your behavior change efforts.
- Choose a limited frequency of your eating window. Consuming food within an 8-hour to 12-hour time frame may help with efforts to reduce belly fat, and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Even if you stop eating a few hours before bed or simply start eating at least 90 minutes after you wake.
- Focus on your ultimate goal based on your disease risk (ie., family history, environmental factors). Then work with a professional to determine the best dietary pattern.