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2002 Releases

New Alternative to USDA Dietary Guidelines Nearly Twice as Effective in Reducing Risk for Major Chronic Disease

For immediate release:  November 21, 2002

Boston, MA- Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have developed healthy eating guidelines and an alternative to the US food pyramid that, when followed closely, significantly reduced the risk for major chronic diseases. The researchers rigorously assessed the diets of more than 100,000 men and women and found that the reduction in risk was nearly twice as great for those whose diet met the new guidelines when compared to those whose eating patterns reflected the current USDA dietary guidelines. The findings appear in the December issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The USDA measures the benefits of adherence to recommended federal dietary programs such as the Food Guide Pyramid and "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" by using what it calls the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI scores the foods that are recommended and consumed by individuals. Adherence to the HEI has been associated with a modest reduction in risk for chronic disease. To determine if more specific guidance would further reduce the risk for chronic disease, Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, Marjorie McCullough from the HSPH Department of Nutrition (now an epidemiology researcher at the American Cancer Society) and a team of researchers developed an Alternative Healthy Eating Index and food guide pyramid emphasizing quality of food choices and compared it to the current HEI.

"The current federal guidelines as displayed in the government food guide pyramid emphasizes large amounts of carbohydrates, doesn't make a distinction between types of fat or protein and lumps red meat, chicken, nuts and legumes together," said Willett. "We developed a food guide pyramid based on the best available science and examined how people who followed it did over the next ten to fifteen years and we found that those who followed our guidelines had substantially reduced risks for major disease. These benefits, achieved by healthy dietary choices, are in addition to those from weight control and regular physical activity, which are also very important."

More than 100,000 men and women were chosen for the study from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study and the Brigham and Women's Hospital based Nurses' Health Study. The participants were sent detailed food frequency questionnaires assessing how often they consumed various foods. The AHEI was designed to highlight specific dietary patterns and eating behaviors consistently associated with lower chronic disease risk based on previous epidemiological and clinical investigations. It also emphasized the quality of food choices, such as white meat over red meat, whole grains over refined grains, oils high in unsaturated fat over ones with saturated fat and multivitamin use.

The researchers found that men whose diet followed the guidelines of the Alternate Healthy Eating Index lowered their overall risk of major chronic disease by 20 percent and women lowered their overall risk by 11 percent compared with those whose diets least followed these guidelines. Men and women whose diet most closely followed the AHEI guidelines lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease by 39 percent and 28 percent, respectively. When compared directly, using the same group of study participants during an identical follow-up time period, the AHEI reduced risk for chronic disease much more than the federal HEI; men whose diets followed the federal HEI recommendations reduced their overall risk by 11 percent and women by only three percent. Willett added, "The current USDA dietary pyramid misses an enormous opportunity for improving the health of Americans. It's clear that we need to rebuild the pyramid from the ground up. Every American deserves it."

The study was funded in part by grants from the National Institutes for Health.

Walter Willett answers some questions about the new Alternate Healthy Eating Index and the USDA dietary guidelines.

    What are your concerns about the USDA food pyramid? (:18)

    How does following the government's dietary recommendations effect individuals? (:17)

    What does the new food pyramid you helped develop recommend? (:23)

    How much did following the Alternate Healthy Eating Index reduce risk for cardiovascular disease? (:22)

    What do you recommend? (:14)

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See related articles:

Food Pyramids -- from The Nutrition Source

Nutrition Book Author Willett Rebuilds USDA Food Pyramid -- from Harvard Public Health Now

Food pyramid:

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752