These foods can help you live longer and protect the planet

image: a graph of the relationship between the risk of dying from various causes and adherence to the Planetary Health Diet Index (PHDI). People in the top quintile for PHDI (Q5) had a significantly lower risk of death from all causes than those in the bottom quintile.
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Credit: Linh Bui et al. at NUTRITION 2023

Eating more planet-friendly foods could help you live longer, healthier lives, according to new research. The researchers found that people who ate a more environmentally sustainable diet were 25 percent less likely to die during a follow-up period of more than 30 years than those with a less sustainable diet.

The study builds on previous research that identified foods that are beneficial to both health and the environment, such as whole grains, fruits, non-starchy vegetables, nuts and unsaturated oils, as well as foods that may be harmful to the environment and human health, such as eggs and red and processed meats. The new findings suggest that eating foods that are kinder to the planet can help reduce a person’s risk of dying from causes such as cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease and neurodegenerative diseases.

“We have proposed a new diet score that incorporates the best current scientific evidence of the effects of food on both health and the environment,” said Linh Bui, MD, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “The results confirmed our hypothesis that a higher planetary diet score was associated with a lower risk of mortality.”

Bui will present the findings at NUTRITION 2023, the flagship annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition taking place July 22-25 in Boston.

According to existing evidence, plant-based foods are associated with both a lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes and stroke, as well as reduced impacts on the environment in terms of factors such as water use, land use, nutrient pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

With the new study, the researchers aimed to create a simple tool that policymakers and public health practitioners could use to develop strategies to improve public health and tackle the climate crisis.

“As a millennial, I’ve always been concerned with mitigating human impacts on the environment,” Bui said. “A sustainable food model should not only be healthy, but also consistent across planetary boundaries with regards to greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental parameters.”

To create their Planetary Health Diet Index (PHDI), the researchers reviewed existing research on relationships between various food groups and health outcomes based on the EAT-Lancet Reference Diet that takes into account the environmental impacts of food manufacturing practices. They then applied the index to analyze outcomes among more than 100,000 participants in two large cohort studies conducted in the United States. The data set included more than 47,000 deaths during a follow-up period spanning more than three decades from 1986 to 2018.

Overall, they found that people in the top quintile (the top fifth of participants) for PHDI had a 25 percent lower risk of dying from any cause than those in the bottom quintile. Higher PHDI scores were associated with a 15% lower risk of death from cancer or cardiovascular disease, a 20% lower risk of death from neurodegenerative disease, and a 50% lower risk of death from respiratory disease.

Bui cautioned that PHDI does not necessarily reflect all food items and their relationships to all major diseases in all countries. People with specific health conditions, religious restrictions, or different food accessibility due to socioeconomic status or food availability may face difficulties in adhering to a more sustainable eating pattern. Further research could help clarify and address those barriers.

“We hope researchers can tailor this index to specific food cultures and validate how it is associated with chronic disease and environmental impacts such as carbon footprint, water footprint and land use in other populations,” Bui said.

Blinds will present this research at 11:45 am EDT on Sunday, July 23, during the Dieting Patterns poster session at Hynes Convention Center Hall C (abstract; presentation details).

NUTRITION 2023 will feature several studies using the Planetary Health Diet Index that Bui co-authored. Andrea Romanos-Nanclares, PhD, will present “Planetary Health Diet Index and Risk of Total and Subtypes of Breast Cancer in the Nurses’ Health Studies” at 11:45 am EDT on Sunday, July 23, during the Nutritional Epidemiology Poster Session (I) (abstract; presentation details). Caleigh Sawicki, PhD, will present “Planetary Health Diet and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease: Findings From Two Cohorts of US Women” at 2:00 pm EDT on Monday, July 24, during the oral session on Dietary Patterns and Health Outcomes (abstract; presentation details).

Please note that abstracts submitted to NUTRITION 2023 have been evaluated and selected by a panel of experts but generally have not undergone the same peer review process required for publication in a scientific journal. Therefore, the results presented should be considered preliminary until a peer-reviewed publication is available.

About NUTRITION 2023

NUTRITION 2023 is the flagship meeting of the American Society for Nutrition and the premier educational event for nutrition professionals from around the world. NUTRITION brings together laboratory scientists, practicing physicians, population health researchers, and community intervention investigators to identify solutions to today’s greatest nutritional challenges. Our audience also includes emerging leaders in the industry: undergraduates, graduates, and medical students. NUTRITION 2023 will be held July 22-25, 2023 in Boston. #Nutrition2023

About the American Society for Nutrition (ASN)

The ASN is the preeminent professional organization for nutrition research scientists and physicians worldwide. Founded in 1928, the society brings together the best nutrition researchers, physicians, policy makers and industry leaders to advance our knowledge and application of nutrition. ASN publishes four peer-reviewed journals and provides educational and professional development opportunities to advance nutrition research, practice and education. Since 2018, the American Society of Nutrition has presented NUTRITION, the premier annual global meeting for nutrition professionals.

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