April 25, 2000 -- Eating right helps you stay healthy -- that's not news. But a new study offers concrete evidence that the food choices we make every day can have a direct influence on our risk of dying from cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
A diet high in fruits, vegetables, grains, and low-fat dairy products can reduce the risk of dying from those diseases by as much as 30%, according to a study of more than 42,000 women in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"Diet does make a difference. That's what this study is showing," Melanie Polk, RD, tells WebMD. "When studies focus on individual nutrients in diet, it really doesn't give you the whole picture, so it's really nice to see a study that focuses on the overall diet and especially on the health impact of eating a diet that's high in fruits and vegetables, a mostly plant-based diet." Polk, who reviewed the study for WebMD, is the director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.
The study authors compared the weekly intake of 23 different foods reported by the women, whose average age was 61. The foods are all part of current dietary recommendations that experts say should be part of a healthy, balanced diet for men and women.
Foods included apples or pears; oranges; cantaloupe; orange or grapefruit juice; grapefruit; other fruit juices; dried beans; tomatoes; broccoli; spinach; mustard (weed), turnip or collard greens; carrots or mixed vegetables with carrots; green salad; sweet potatoes, yams; other potatoes; chicken or turkey; baked or stewed fish; dark breads like whole wheat, rye, or pumpernickel; cornbread, tortillas, and grits; high-fiber cereals such as bran, granola, or shredded wheat; cooked cereals; 2% milk; beverages with 2% milk; and 1% or skim milk.
Researchers, led by Ashima K. Kant, PhD, of the department of family, nutrition, and exercise sciences at Queens College of the City University of New York in Flushing, assigned each woman a score based on the total number of recommended foods that she reported eating at least once a week. The highest possible score was 23. They then followed the women for more than five years to see how many developed cancers or heart disease or had a stroke.
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.