Eating This Can Reduce Your Risk of Early Death, Says New Study

A board-certified cardiologist says choosing foods that could help you live longer isn't nearly as restrictive as you might think.

There’s no denying the volume of studies out there that tell you exactly what you should eat. Walnuts have been shown to reduce heart disease risk. Flavanol-rich foods can help fight off dementia. Tart cherry juice can help reduce inflammation. Yet, while these studies focus narrowly on certain foods, a recent cohort study published in JAMA Internal Medicine Journal concluded that generally eating a healthy diet can reduce your risk of early death by 20%.

Sure, it doesn’t exactly give a checklist of to-do’s or a particular outcome, which is what most of the latest nutrition science studies conclude with. This cohort study found that following The Dietary Guidelines for Americans—the government-issued guidelines that are evaluated, updated, and approved by medical experts every five years—has proven to be successful for study participants within a 36-year period, even after adapting to their particular food traditions and preferences.

“A lot of studies looking at the effects of nutrition on health examine single ingredients or food types. But diet is more complex—none of us eats just one thing,” says Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, a board-certified cardiologist and founder of Step One Foods, to The Healthy @Reader’s Digest. “This was a large study that examined adherence to various dietary patterns over the long haul and showed that regardless of name or specific composition, healthier eating patterns yielded better health.”

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What the cohort study says

The cohort study evaluated the adherence to different healthy eating patterns of over 72,000 participants in two large prospective cohorts: women from the Nurses’ Health Study and men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. The four eating patterns included the Healthy Eating Index 2015, the Alternate Mediterranean Diet, the Healthful Plant-based Diet Index, and the Alternate Healthy Eating Index.

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After more than three decades, the researchers found that greater adherence to a healthy eating pattern can lower one’s risk of total and cause-specific mortality including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory disease. Even though different eating patterns were evaluated during the study, the researchers did not endorse one over the other. Instead, they merely concluded that following the recommended outlines in The Dietary Guidelines for Americans would benefit one’s longevity.

“This means that there is not just one specific diet that carries all the benefits—we can choose healthier dietary patterns that are more realistic for our individual circumstances and still experience better outcomes,” says Klodas.

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The key recommendations from DGA

To be candid, the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (published for years 2020 to 2025) is parceled out in a whopping 164-page PDF, which probably isn’t the most approachable format someone who’s interested in eating a healthier diet. Yet the guidelines aren’t meant to be a specific type of diet to follow with a 10-step plan. Instead, it’s recommending healthier ways of living and eating that can work within all different types of lifestyles and cultures.

For starters, focusing on nutrient-dense foods and drinks is a key point the guidelines make. They also recommend limiting the amount of food and beverages high in sodium, added sugars, and saturated fat in order to reduce risks, as well as a limited intake of alcohol.

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Some normalized eating patterns in America have proven to be harmful

Unfortunately, American diets tend to be laden with the foods and beverages the guidelines say to steer away from. Some call it the Standard American Diet (SAD), known for being heavy in processed meats, dairy, ultra-processed grains, and added sugars.

“This dietary pattern is devoid of the essential nutrients (whole food fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and plant sterols—natural plant components which help reduce cholesterol absorption) that support cardiovascular and general health,” says Klodas. “The proof is in the pudding, literally. The average lifespan of someone living in the United States is 76 years. Meanwhile, there are communities around the globe where becoming a centenarian is not unusual. The biggest difference is what they eat.”

Research shows that constantly following the SAD can increase inflammation in the body and causes higher risks of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and fatty liver disease. The SAD has even been linked to mental health disorders.

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How to follow a healthy diet without feeling restrictive

While the guidelines push for nutrient-dense foods and beverages, it does say that having some flexibility in one’s healthy eating pattern helps with leading someone to success. Instead, look at these not-so-nutrient-dense foods that make up the SAD as a treat to be sprinkled in, instead of becoming the constant main event.

Thankfully, the “main event” doesn’t have to be so restrictive either. This cohort study is proof that while generally following a healthy eating pattern is beneficial for living a longer life, there isn’t one perfect way to do so. The healthy dietary plan you choose can be based on your preferences.

Klodas says the Mediteranean Diet has been repeated demonstrated to be one successful healthy way of eating, and is one of her favorites. (Check out the foods Dr. Klodas keeps stocked in her kitchen.)

“The more closely you follow any whole-food plant-based diet, the better,” she says. “Beans, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole/unprocessed grains should make up the majority of your intake. Fish, dairy, and meat should be eaten relatively sparingly, and processed meat should be avoided altogether. The JAMA article supports this conclusion, but it’s not the only study that tells us this. The totality of nutrition research, taken as a whole, tells us this.”

Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.