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Harvard Releases Two Studies About the Quality of the American Diet

Two recent Harvard studies examined dietary issues currently facing many Americans.  The first study found that while improvements in the American diet have helped reduce disease and premature death, there is still plenty of room left for further improvements. The second study identified three dietary interventions that would help reduce childhood obesity at a significant savings in health care costs.


The first study measured how changes in dietary quality from 1999-2012 impacted disease and premature death. The researchers examined the dietary quality data of 33,885 Americans who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which used the Alternate Healthy Eating Index 2010. The researchers also used information from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professional Follow-Up Study (which included approximately 173,000 people) in order to assess how the dietary quality of the participants would impact disease and mortality.


The researchers found that healthier eating habits were associated with the prevention of a cumulative 1.1 million premature deaths over the 14-year period. They also found that the difference in dietary quality between 1999 and 2012 was associated with 12.6% fewer cases of type 2 diabetes, 8.6% fewer cases of cardiovascular disease, and 1.3% fewer cancer cases.


They noted that it only took small dietary quality improvements to achieve these results. However, on a healthiness scale ranging from 0 to 110, with 110 being the healthiest, the participant’s average scores never reached 50.


The second study examined the cost-effectiveness of seven interventions aimed at reducing childhood obesity in the U.S. The researchers developed a detailed prediction model in order to calculate costs and effectiveness of the interventions over a 10-year period from 2015-2025.


They determined that an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, elimination of the tax subsidy for advertising unhealthy food to children, and nutrition standards for all food and drink sold in schools that isn’t school meals would be the most cost effective. They estimated that the three interventions would prevent 576,000, 129,000, and 345,000 cases of childhood obesity, respectively, if implemented on a national scale. They also estimated that the net savings for every dollar spent would be $30.78, $32.53, and $4.56.


Both studies were published in the November 2015 issue of HealthAffairs.


Obesity has far ranging negative effects on health. Each year, obesity causes approximately 300,000 premature deaths in the United States. The negative health effects associated with obesity include high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, metabolic syndrome and sleep apnea.


Improving eating habits and increasing physical activity play a vital role in preventing obesity. It is recommended that we eat five to six servings of fruits and vegetables per day. It also recommended that we get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity every day.

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