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Compared to those with the lowest scores, those who had the highest scores -- closest to 23 -- had a 30% reduction in risk of various cancers, heart disease, stroke, and all other illnesses combined. Women with the highest scores tended to be older, more educated, physically active, more likely to drink alcohol and use dietary supplements regularly, and less likely to be current smokers.

The authors say the findings support earlier data showing that women and men who do not include a wide variety of foods in their day-to-day diet are more likely to have an increased risk of death from all causes.

For more information about what a healthy, balanced diet should include, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which was last updated in 1995. The guidelines emphasize variety and proportion in food selection and moderation of sugars, salt, alcohol, and fats.

Polk says that although remembering and following dietary recommendations on a daily basis can seem overwhelming, the most important thing to remember is that even small changes in diet can make a difference in improving overall health. She suggests minor substitutions, such as switching from a refined-sugar cereal to a whole-grain cereal, or eating a bowl of berries as a late-night snack instead of ice cream, as ways to bring about subtle but healthy changes.

For more information, visit our Diet and Nutrition page. And get answers to some commonly asked questions in our Medical Library.

  • A new study provides more evidence that diet and nutrition can influence our risk of dying from cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
  • In a study of 42,000 women, those who ate a diet high in fruits, vegetables, grains, and low-fat dairy products reduced their risk of dying from these diseases by 30%.
  • One expert recommends making small, subtle changes to improve diet, which can translate into a big improvement in overall health.

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