The Best Diets for Healthy Aging

New study suggests four dietary patterns support healthy aging.

Silhouette of a human body comprised of food groups: fruit, nuts, legumes, vegetables, whole grains

How can we eat to age well? New research published January 9, 2023, in JAMA Internal Medicine links four major healthy eating patterns to a lower risk of premature death and of cancer, diseases of the cardiovascular system, and respiratory illness.

The study examined 36 years of health data collected from 75,230 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study and from 44,085 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study—all of whom were free of cardiovascular disease or cancer at the outset—to see how the four diets recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans affected the risk of premature death and disease.

The four diets—the Healthy Eating Index 2015 (HEI-2015), Alternative Mediterranean Diet (AMED), Healthful Plant-based Diet Index (HPDI), and Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI)—all encourage the consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts, but also account for different lifestyle choices and cultures.

The Mediterranean Diet promotes fish consumption and discourages red meat, sugar, and processed meats; the Healthful Plant-based Diet is a well-rounded eating pattern that does not include animal-based protein. The Healthy Eating Index 2015 is closest to the standard American healthy omnivore diet, including meats, fruits, vegetables, low- and fat-free dairy, and legumes. The Alternative Healthy Eating Index, developed at Harvard, aims specifically at staving off chronic illness and inflammation with healthy oils, a variety of whole grains, and emphasis on plant-based protein, and a limitation on cold cuts and other processed meats. The researchers wanted to assess whether these four diets lowered the risk of premature death and disease—and to see if any were more promising than others.

All four diets were associated with lower risk of premature death from all causes, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory disease. Interestingly, however, the researchers found that the Mediterranean Diet and Alternative Healthy Eating Index are associated with a lower risk of death from neurodegenerative disease, specifically. The study suggests this could be attributed to “benefits of some unique dietary components in the 2 dietary patterns, such as nuts and monounsaturated fat.” The study affirms that no single diet is best for healthy aging; rather, general dietary principles, like avoiding processed sugar and saturated fat, can lead to long-lasting success. And for those looking to stave off neurodegenerative diseases, a diet rich in fish and healthy fats from nuts and oils could be key.

Stare professor of nutrition and epidemiology Frank Hu, chair of the department of nutrition (featured in “Healthy Plate, Healthy Planet”), is corresponding author for the study; other Harvard Chan School co-authors include professor of epidemiology and nutrition Walter Willett and professor of epidemiology JoAnn Manson.

Read more articles by: Nancy Walecki

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