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If you have a family history of heart disease, you probably try to stick to a healthy diet to reduce your heart risk. But did you know that focusing on combinations of foods vetted for their disease-fighting ability can help lower risks for many chronic illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease that can lead to heart attacks and strokes?
The Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) assigns ratings to foods and nutrients predictive of chronic disease. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers created the AHEI as an alternative to the US Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Eating Index, which measures adherence to the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“The Healthy Eating Index and the Alternative Healthy Eating Index are similar, but the AHEI is more oriented toward reducing the risk of chronic disease,” says Natalie McCormick, a research fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The AHEI grades your diet, assigning a score ranging from 0 (nonadherence) to 110 (perfect adherence), based on how often you eat certain foods, both healthy and unhealthy fare.
For example, someone who reports eating no daily vegetables would score a zero, while someone who ate five or more servings a day would earn a 10. For an unhealthy option, such as sugar-sweetened drinks or fruit juice, scoring is reversed: a person who eats one or more servings would score a zero, and zero servings would earn a 10.
Research links high scores on the AHEI with a lower risk of chronic disease. One key study reported in the Journal of Nutrition, which included 71,495 women and 41,029 men, found that people who scored higher on the AHEI had a 19% lower risk of chronic disease, including a 31% lower risk of coronary heart disease and a 33% lower risk of diabetes, when compared to people with low AHEI scores. Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that among 7,319 participants, those who got high scores on the AHEI had a 25% lower risk of dying from any cause, and more than a 40% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, than the low AHEI scorers.
Separate research on older men and older women has shown that those who score highest on the AHEI perform better on activities like climbing stairs, lifting groceries, walking a mile, and engaging in moderate or vigorous activities than those who score lowest.
A global study noted wide variations among nations in diet quality, and predicted that improving current diets could prevent millions of deaths from cancer, coronary artery disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, kidney disease, diabetes, and digestive diseases.
It’s probably not practical to use the actual AHEI scoring system, says Kathy McManus, director of the department of nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. But you can easily incorporate more of the healthy AHEI foods into your diet.
Some top choices include the following:
Kelly Bilodeau, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
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Eat real food. That’s the essence of today’s nutrition message. Our knowledge of nutrition has come full circle, back to eating food that is as close as possible to the way nature made it. Based on a solid foundation of current nutrition science, Harvard’s Special Health Report A Guide to Healthy Eating: Strategies, tips, and recipes to help you make better food choices describes how to eat for optimum health.
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How to help your child get the sleep they need