Food for Thought: Diet Makes Big Difference at Middle Age

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • So does what you eat at midlife matter to your long-term health? You bet it does!

    In a newly published study, researchers looked at data from a total of 3,775 men and 1,575 women who were an average age of 51 and who participated in the Whitehall II cohort study.  Data from these participants were collected from 1985-2009. The data included hospital data, results of screenings that were conducted every five years and registry data. The researchers then identified mortality and chronic diseases among the participants. These outcomes were then classified into five categories:

    • Ideal aging, which involved being free of chronic conditions and performing at a high rate on physical, mental and cognitive functioning tests (4 percent).
    • Nonfatal cardiovascular event (12.7 percent).
    • Cardiovascular death (2.8 percent).
    • Non-cardiovascular death (7.3 percent).
    • Normal aging (73.2 percent). 

    The researchers also looked at the foods that these participants ate. They found that participants who ate an Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), which is a validated index of diet quality that was originally created to provide guidelines to help combat major chronic diseases, can reverse metabolic syndrome. This syndrome is a strong predictor of heart disease and mortality.

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    Their analysis also found that not following the AHEI was associated with an increased chance of cardiovascular death and non-cardiovascular death. Participants who ate a “Western” diet that included high consumption of fried and sweet foods, processed food, red meat, refined grains and high-fat dairy products had lower odds of ideal aging.

    “We showed that following specific dietary recommendations such as the one provided by the AHEI maybe useful in reducing the risk of unhealthy aging, while avoidance of the ‘Western-type foods’ might actually improve the possibility of achieving older ages free of chronic diseases and remaining highly functional,” said Dr. Tasninme Akbaraly of Inserm who served as the study’s lead researcher.

    So what exactly is the AHEI? This index measures diet quality through nine dietary components. This guideline includes attention fat quality, inclusion of moderate amounts of alcohol, cereal fiber, a ratio of red meat to white meat, and the duration of multivitamin use. Here are the elements, which are included in Harvard University’s Healthy Eating Pyramid:

    • Whole grains, such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread and brown rice that have the outer (bran) and inner (germ) layers along with starch, which provides energy.
    • Healthy fats and oils, such as olive oil, canola oil, soy oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, other vegetable oils, trans fat-free margarines, nuts, seeds, avocados and fatty fish, such as salmon.
    • Vegetables and fruits. However, potatoes don’t count as a vegetable due to their starchiness.
    • Nuts, seeds, beans and tofu, which provide protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Beans include black beans, navy beans, garbanzos, lentils and other beans that are usually purchased as dry beans. Nuts include almonds, walnuts, pecans, peanuts, hazelnuts and pistachios. 
    • Fish, poultry and eggs, which are important sources for protein.
    • Dairy (1-2 servings per day or a vitamin D/calcium supplement.

    Foods that should be eaten sparingly include:

    • Red meat, processed meat and butter.
    • Refined grains, such as white bread, rice and pasta, sugary drinks and sweets and salt.

    In addition, the index recommends a multivitamin with extra vitamin D. Also, limited alcohol consumption is okay as well.

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    By picking foods that are related to the AHEI, you can increase the chances of aging in a healthy manner. So be sure to assess your diet and start making changes that will help you eat in this manner.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Akbaraly, T., et al. (2013). Does overall diet in midlife predict future aging phenotypes? A cohort study. The American Journal of Medicine.

    Huffman, F. G., et al. (2011). Healthy eating index and alternate healthy eating index among Haitian Americans and African Americans with and without Type 2 diabetes.

    Harvard School of Public Health. (nd.). Food pyramids and plates: What should you really eat?

    The American Journal of Medicine. (2013). Following a Western style diet may lead to greater risk of premature death.

Published On: April 22, 2013