Compared to people who ate healthy foods, men and women in their 70s had a 40% higher risk of death if they got most of their calories from high-fat dairy foods or from sweets and desserts.
University of Maryland researcher Amy L. Anderson, PhD, and colleagues monitored the eating patterns of 2,582 adults aged 70 to 79. They found that these diets fell into six patterns or clusters.
After adjusting for risk factors such as sex, age, race, education, physical activing, smoking, and total calories, “the High-Fat Dairy Products cluster and the Sweets and Desserts cluster still showed significantly higher risk of mortality than the Healthy Foods cluster,” Anderson and colleagues found.
The six dietary patterns were:
- Healthy Foods: Higher intake of low-fat dairy products, fruit, whole grains, poultry, fish, and vegetables. Lower intake of meat, fried foods, sweets, high-energy drinks, and added fat.
- High-Fat Dairy Products: Higher intake of ice cream, cheese, and 2% and whole milk and yogurt. Lower intake of poultry, low-fat dairy products, rice, and pasta.
- Sweets and Desserts: Higher intake of doughnuts, cake, cookies, pudding, chocolate, and candy. Lower intake of fruit, fish and other seafood, and dark green vegetables.
- Meat, Fried Foods, and Alcohol: Higher intake of beer, liquor, fried chicken, mayonnaise/salad dressings, high-energy density drinks, nuts, snacks, rice/pasta dishes, and added fat. Lower intake of low-fat dairy products, fiber/bran breakfast cereal, and other breakfast cereal.
- Breakfast Cereal: Higher intake of fiber/bran and other breakfast cereals (especially the latter). Low intake of nuts, refined grains, dark yellow vegetables, and dark green vegetables.
- Refined Grains: Higher intake of refined grains (such as pancakes, waffles, breads, muffins, and cooked cereals such as oatmeal) and processed meat (such as bacon, sausage, ham, and other lunchmeats). Lower intake of liquor, breakfast cereals, and whole grains.
Several of the groups got an unusually large amount of their total calories from just one food group:
- The sweets and desserts cluster got 25.8% of its total energy from sweets.
- The refined grains cluster got 24.6% of its total energy from refined grains.
- The breakfast cereal group got 19.3% of its total energy from cold cereals other than those full of fiber and bran.
- The high-fat dairy products group got 17.1% of its total energy from higher-fat dairy foods.
Healthy Eaters Live Longest
Overall, people in the healthy foods cluster had more years of healthy life and a lower death rate than all other groups. Moreover, their blood tests came back with significantly more indicators of health than the other groups.
But not all of the study findings were so predictable.
“Unexpectedly, in this and in several other studies, a [dietary] pattern higher in red meat was not significantly associated with increased risk of mortality,” Anderson and colleagues note.
It’s also not entirely clear why the Meat, Fried Food, and Alcohol cluster didn’t have a significantly higher death risk, as most diets warn people to limit or avoid such foods.
“In our study, the Meat, Fried Food, and Alcohol cluster did have a slightly higher percentage of total energy from vegetables, fruit, and whole grains than both the High-Fat Dairy Products and Sweets and Desserts clusters, which showed higher risk of mortality,” Anderson and colleagues suggest.
This was by far the most common eating pattern seen in the study: 27% of participants were in the meat, fried food, and alcohol cluster. But Anderson and colleagues do not recommend such a diet.
Instead, they point to the fact that 14.5% of study participants were in the healthy foods cluster.
“Adherence to such a diet appears a feasible and realistic recommendation for potentially improved survival and quality of life in the growing older adult population,” Anderson and colleagues conclude.
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