What we eat and drink every day affects our health. It's no secret that broccoli, mushrooms, chickpeas and lentils should often be on the menu and that we should better avoid the bag of chips. However, individual foods are not so important – at least that is what a long-term study suggests. According to the researchers, it is more important that we follow certain dietary patterns to reduce our risk of certain diseases and thus live longer.
The study tracked the dietary habits of 75,000 women participating in the Nurses' Health Study and more than 44,000 men participating in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study over 36 years. None of the participants had cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study and there were only a few smokers among the test subjects. Every four years, the participants filled out a questionnaire about their diet.
Some consumers, but also science, have long been concerned with the question of healthy nutrition. Nutrition societies worldwide deal with people's eating habits and make recommendations - based on scientific knowledge. It is therefore not surprising that a plant-based diet is recommended both in the US nutrition guidelines and by the German Society for Nutrition (DGE).
According to the current US dietary guidelines, vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains should be the priority on the menu. Dairy products, lean meat, eggs, fish and (vegetable) oils are recommended supplements. Experts advise against foods and drinks high in sugar, saturated fat and high in sodium.
When evaluating the data, the research team looked at the effect on the health and mortality of the subjects when they followed the US dietary guidelines. The researchers rated the participants on how closely they adhered to four healthy eating styles that their recommendations align with those of the US Dietary Guidelines.
The researchers then assessed each participant's dietary habits and divided them into five groups. Depending on how closely they have adhered to one or more of the four eating patterns. "The top quintile of participants in diet quality had a 20 percent lower risk of all-cause death compared to the bottom quintile," nutrition expert David Katz told CNN.
The researchers also found that even a small improvement in diet has an effect: participants who improved their diet by 25 percent were able to reduce their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 6 to 13 percent. The risk of dying from cancer, dementia or a respiratory disease was also lower.
If we take a look at the eating habits in Germany, it becomes clear that meat still ends up on the plate too often: Meat consumption is relatively stable at 60 kilograms per year and capita, according to the DGE nutrition report. But consumption of beef, veal and poultry is increasing.
On the other hand, Germans eat more vegetables – 104 kilograms per year and capita. Legumes are also becoming more popular: 3.5 kilograms are consumed per year per capita. But since 2010, Germans have been eating less fruit. "In order for us to be able to achieve the goal of a plant-based diet, the consumption of vegetables including legumes, fruit, cereals, potatoes and nuts must still increase significantly and the consumption of animal-based foods must fall sharply," said nutritionist Kurt Gedrich in the report.
In any case, the good news from the US study is that it is always a good idea to make your diet healthier. And switching to a healthier diet seems to make you even happier. "People have a lot of leeway when it comes to creating their own healthy eating habits. But the common principles—more plant-based foods and less red meat, processed meats, added sugars and sodium—should always apply, no matter what type of diet you're eating wishes," said Hu.
Even if the study ran with a large number of participants and over a very long period of time, it has a major weakness that usually occurs in nutritional studies. The knowledge about the eating behavior of the subjects comes solely from self-reports. Due to the research design, no causal connection can be established between certain foods and their direct influence on our health.
Sources: Study Jama Network, CNN, US Dietary Guidelines, 14th Nutrition Report DGE