A plant-based diet is among several healthy eating patterns linked to a reduced risk of premature death, according to a new study led by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

The researchers discovered that participants who scored high on adherence to at least one of four healthy eating patterns were less likely to die during the study period from any cause and less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, cancer, or respiratory disease, compared with people with lower scores. 

According to the researchers, few studies have evaluated whether greater adherence to the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs)—which recommend multiple healthy eating patterns—is associated with long-term risk of total and cause-specific death.


“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are intended to provide science-based dietary advice that promotes good health and reduces major chronic diseases,” corresponding author Frank Hu, Fredrick J. Stare Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology and chair of the Department of Nutrition, said in a statement. “Thus, it is critical to examine the associations between DGAs-recommended dietary patterns and long-term health outcomes, especially mortality.”

Vegan diet helps you live longer

For the study, the researchers used health data collected over 36 years from 75,230 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study and 44,085 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. All participants were free of cardiovascular disease or cancer at the beginning of the study and completed dietary questionnaires every four years. Their information was scored based on four dietary pattern indexes: Healthy Eating Index 2015, Alternate Mediterranean Diet, Healthful Plant-based Diet Index, and Alternate Healthy Eating Index. 

Sticking closely to at least one of these diets was associated with lower risk of premature death from all causes, and from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory disease. The researchers believe that the reason for the similarity in the associations between diet quality and death is that all four dietary patterns share the key component of being high in plant foods, specifically whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. And the researchers hope their findings will help inform any updates to the DGAs.


“Our findings support the recommendations of the current DGAs to achieve long-term health benefits by adherence to various healthy eating patterns that can be adopted based on individuals’ health needs, food preferences, and cultural traditions, although all these diet patterns encourage high consumption of healthy plant-based foods,” the study concludes.

Health benefits of plant-based foods

The study adds to a growing body of research that indicates the health benefits of a plant-based diet, including reducing one’s risk of cancer and heart diseases. For example, a study published last month in the medical journal BMC Medicine found that eating a plant-based diet rich in healthy plant food such as whole grains, vegetables, and legumes is associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer in men by 22 percent. 

Another study published in the medical journal Frontiers of Public Health found that a plant-based diet can be protective against a variety of cancers affecting the digestive system, including pancreas cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, gastric cancer, and liver cancer.


Additionally, research from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found a strong association between consuming plant foods rich in isoflavones and reduced heart disease risk. The study, which analyzed data gathered from more than 200,000 participants, found that eating tofu more than once a week was associated with an 18-percent lower risk of heart disease. 

“If [an individual’s] diet is packed with unhealthy foods, such as red meat, sugary beverages, and refined carbohydrates, they should switch to healthier alternatives,” lead study author Qi Sun, MD, ScD, said. “Tofu and other isoflavone-rich, plant-based foods are excellent protein sources and alternatives to animal proteins.” 

Benefits of plant foods for seniors

Studies have also found that a plant-based diet can be beneficial later in life. For example, a vegan diet is linked to a fewer number of medications prescribed to older adults. The researchers of one study pointed to data showing that individuals who take more than five medications a day carry an 88 percent higher risk of adverse drug events as well as higher mortality rates.


The study, published in the medical journal American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, concluded that older adults who follow a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet are better protecting their health. “Our results show that eating healthy, especially a vegan diet, may be protective in leading to a reduced number of pills taken, either by preventing the development of risk factors and/or cardiovascular disease or by helping on the controlling of such conditions,” the authors of the study said.

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