Latecomers to healthy eating experience a decreased risk of death compared to their peers who have persistently low diet quality, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. In this study, researchers evaluated the association between 12-year changes in diet quality and the risk of mortality. Diet quality was rated based on how closely a person’s eating pattern resembled three of the healthiest eating plans: the Alternative Healthy Eating Index, the Alternate Mediterranean Diet and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). Though differing in the details, each of these eating plans emphasizes whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and fish and/or omega 3 fatty acids.
The researchers found that a 20% increase in diet-quality scores was associated with an 8%–17% reduction in risk of death from any cause. A 20% increase in diet score could result from increasing consumption of nuts and legumes from 0 to 1 servings per day and decreasing red and processed meats from 1.5 servings to none, for example. When compared to participants who had consistently low scores, those who had low scores initially and the largest improvements 12 years later had a 15%–28% lower risk of death from any cause. This finding is a reminder that it’s never too late to benefit from adopting a healthier lifestyle.