Diet tweaks that could cut your risk of an early death by 20%, according to a new Harvard study

Diet tweaks that could cut your risk of an early death by 20%, according to a new Harvard study
There are many ways of eating healthy, as long as you get plenty of fruits and vegetables, research suggests.Morsa Images/Getty Images
  • New research suggests a healthy diet can cut the risk of dying early by up to 20%.
  • Healthy eating plans share common traits like including lots of plants and less processed foods.

Eating well can help drastically reduce your risk of dying early, suggests a a new study.

And, according to the researchers — from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health — there are a few diets you can try to achieve that goal.

The researchers looked at data from more than 120,000 adults across up to 36 years of follow-up to compare their self-reported eating habits with mortality rates.

Their study, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that people who ate the "highest-quality diets" had 20% lower risk of dying early from any cause during the study, and lower risks of illnesses like heart disease and cancer.

There were a few different diets that researchers classified as healthy, and conducive to living a long, healthy life.


Some participants had good health outcomes from eating a Mediterranean-style diet, which included lots of olive oil as well as seafood. The Mediterranean diet, based on traditional eating habits in countries like Greece and Spain, is well-researched, and experts consistently rank it among the healthiest ways to eat.

Others in the study fared well by sticking to a plant-based diet without any animal products. Vegan and vegetarian are also evidence-based ways to improve heart health and reduce risk of certain cancers.

Researchers also found health benefits for people who more closely followed the current US dietary guidelines, which include some meat and dairy, as well as the alternative healthy eating index, developed at Harvard, which emphasizes plant-based protein and healthy fats.

The common factors in the healthiest diets were large amounts of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.

In contrast, lower diet scores were given to participants who ate more processed food, added sugar, red meat, sweetened beverages, and alcohol.


The most recent evidence suggests that basic principles, like eating plenty of plants and less processed foods, can help people find a way to eat healthfully that works for their preferences, lifestyle, and culture, according to Dr. Frank Hu, senior author of the study and chair of the nutrition department at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

"It's never too late to adopt healthy eating patterns, and the benefits of eating a healthy diet can be substantial in terms of reducing total premature deaths and different causes of premature death," he told CNN. "People also have a lot of flexibility in terms of creating their own healthy dietary pattern."