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Harvard Study Finds Healthy Diet Stretches Your Life Span

Research supports latest government guidelines to adhere to a nutritious eating pattern

LanaSweet / Getty Images

Regardless of your race, ethnicity or gender, eating healthy appears to be a smart way to improve your odds of living a longer life, according to researchers who analyzed decades of data collected on more than 119,000 adults.

The study, appearing in JAMA Internal Medicinefound that greater adherence to a healthy eating pattern — such as a Mediterranean or a healthy plant-based diet — was associated with about a 20 percent lower risk of early death. Notably, the researchers found the associations held true across racial, ethnic and other lines. 

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“Our findings support the recommendations of DGAs [Dietary Guidelines for Americans] for multiple healthy eating patterns for all US individuals with diverse cultural and personal food traditions and preferences,” concluded corresponding author Frank B. Hu, M.D., of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and his fellow researchers.

In a nutshell, that means regardless of age, race, ethnicity or current health status, you don’t have to give up your favorite foods or cultural traditions or break the bank to eat healthy.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans

In its most recent DGA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends adhering to a modest diet of “nutrient-dense” foods and drinks. That means you should also watch your calories and not eat too much of one thing.

As the DGA explains, nutrient-dense foods “provide vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components and have no or little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.” According to the USDA, such foods include:

  • Vegetables of all types, including leafy dark greens, starchy ones such as sweet potatoes, and beans, peas and lentils (which are also high in protein)
  • Fruit, especially whole fruit
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Dairy, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese. Alternatively, lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt are recommended.
  • Proteins, including lean meats, poultry and eggs; seafood; beans, peas and lentils; and nuts, seeds and soy products
  • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in foods such as seafood and nuts

The Harvard study

Hu and his colleagues analyzed data collected through two long-term prospective studies. The first was the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), which began in 1975 to collect health-related information from 121,700 female registered nurses in 11 states. The second was the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS), which began in 1986 to collect health-related information from 51,259 male health professionals.

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Among both study groups, food-frequency questionnaires were completed every two years (starting in 1984 for the NHS and in 1986 for the HPFS), allowing the researchers to determine how closely 75,230 women and 44,085 men in the two studies adhered to one of four healthy eating patterns: the Healthy Eating Index 2015 (HEI-2015), Alternate Mediterranean Diet (AMED) score, Healthful Plant-Based Diet Index (HPDI) and Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI).

They then used death records to determine any association with eating patterns. The analysis did not include participants who had reported cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes at the onset of the studies. Also excluded were participants whose daily calorie intake was either very low or very high. The large pool of participants allowed the researchers to analyze by race and ethnicity and general causes of death.

For their analysis, the researchers ranked participants based on how closely they adhered to the healthy eating patterns, then looked at mortality rates among the top quarter (most adherent) and bottom quarter (least adherent).

The researchers determined that those who followed the healthy eating patterns were less likely to die from heart disease, cancer or lung disease. The link between the healthy eaters and lower risk of death held up across different racial and ethnic groups, including Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic white individuals.

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