Shift Towards Healthy Eating Reduces Risk of Premature Death

Increasing intake of unhealthy food over time can nearly double an individuals risk of mortality.

Individuals who improve their eating habits over time can significantly reduce their risk of premature death, according to a new study published by the New England Journal of Medicine. These findings highlight the importance of healthy eating habits, the authors noted.

This is the first study to indicate that eating more whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and fish, while reducing intake of red and processed meats and sugary beverages over 12 or more years can lower the risk of mortality. These individuals were found to have a lower risk of total and cardiovascular mortality, according to the study.

“Overall, our findings underscore the benefits of healthy eating patterns, including the Mediterranean diet and the [Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension] DASH diet,” said lead author Mercedes Sotos-Prieto, PhD. “Our study indicates that even modest improvements in diet quality could meaningfully influence mortality risk and conversely, worsening diet quality may increase the risk.”

Included in the study were diet quality data for nearly 74,000 individuals between 1986 and 1998 and their risk of mortality between 1998 and 2010. The data were collected from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals’ Follow-up study, in which patients answered questions about their diets, lifestyle, and health every few years.

The authors assessed participants’ diets through the 2010 Alternate Eating Index, the Alternate Mediterranean Diet score, and the DASH diet score. Healthy foods were scored higher compared with less healthy foods, according to the authors.

The investigators found that improved diet quality over the initial 12-year period was linked to a reduced risk of death in the following 12 years, according to the study. The authors noted that the findings remained true regardless of the score used.

The authors reported that the food that improved diet quality included whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fish/n-3 fatty acids.

A 20% increase in diet-quality scores was linked to an 8% to 17% decreased risk of mortality. This percentage increase was achievable by swapping 1 portion of red or processed meat for nuts or legumes, according to the study.

In comparison, the authors discovered that eating more unhealthy food over time was linked to a 6% to 12% increased risk of mortality.

Among patients who maintained higher diet scores, the authors noted a 9% to 14% reduction in all-cause mortality, while patients who had unhealthy diets at baseline, but improved habits over time, also reduced their risk of mortality, according to the study.

These findings show that transitioning towards a healthier diet can benefit overall health and reduce the risk of mortality.

“Our results highlight the long-term health benefits of improving diet quality with an emphasis on overall dietary patterns rather than on individual foods or nutrients,” said senior study author Frank Hu, MD, PhD. “A healthy eating pattern can be adopted according to individuals’ food and cultural preferences and health conditions. There is no one-size-fits-all diet.”