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.
Rating your diet
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.
Can you use the AHEI to score your own diet?
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:
- Vegetables. Aim for five a day, and focus on squeezing in extra servings of green leafy vegetables, which may help reduce the risk of diabetes. Try to skip the potatoes and fries.
- Fruit. Try to eat four servings a day, an amount that might help protect against cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Avoid fruit juice, because drinking too much might actually increase your risk of diabetes.
- Whole grains. Eating five to six servings a day might help head off cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and colorectal cancer, says McManus. Minimize refined grains, which are associated with a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, and potentially other chronic diseases.
- Nuts, legumes, and vegetable protein (tofu). Getting a serving a day of protein from these sources is a healthy way to add nutrients to your diet, and might help protect against diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
- Fish. Adding fish to your weekly meal plan can give your body a dose of healthy fatty acids, which could help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and potentially diabetes.
- Healthy fats. Adding healthy unsaturated fats to your diet helps reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Some good options are olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, or safflower oil, says McManus. These healthy fats are particularly beneficial if you are swapping them for saturated fats, such as butter.
Also, look to the MyPlate tool for guidance (available in multiple languages). It’s based on much of the same research that experts used to develop the AHEI. Adding more of these chronic disease-fighting foods into your diet can help keep you in good health over the long term.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? (Genesis 18:24) And the Lord replied, “If I find fifty righteous people in Sodom, I will spare the entire city for their sake.” (Genesis 18:26)
And be sure to say, ‘Look, your servant Jacob is right behind us.’” Jacob thought, “I will try to appease him by sending gifts ahead of me. When I see him in person, perhaps he will be friendly to me.” (Genesis 32:20)
to say to you: ‘Please forgive your brothers for the great wrong they did to you—for their sin in treating you so cruelly.’ So we, the servants of the God of your father, beg you to forgive our sin.” When Joseph received the message, he broke down and wept. (Genesis 50:17)
“Forgive my sin, just this once, and plead with the Lord your God to take away this death from me.” (Exodus 10:17)
Pay close attention to him, and obey his instructions. Do not rebel against him, for he is my representative, and he will not forgive your rebellion. (Exodus 23:21)
Moses Intercedes for Israel The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a terrible sin, but I will go back up to the Lord on the mountain. Perhaps I will be able to obtain forgiveness for your sin.” (Exodus 32:30) So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a terrible sin these people have committed. They have made gods of gold for themselves. (Exodus 32:31) But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, erase my name from the record you have written!” (Exodus 32:32)
The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, “Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6) I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected— even children in the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:7)
And he said, “O Lord, if it is true that I have found favor with you, then please travel with us. Yes, this is a stubborn and rebellious people, but please forgive our iniquity and our sins. Claim us as your own special possession.” (Exodus 34:9)
just as he does with the bull offered as a sin offering for the high priest. Through this process, the priest will purify the people, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:20) Then he must burn all the goat’s fat on the altar, just as he does with the peace offering. Through this process, the priest will purify the leader from his sin, making him right with the Lord, and he will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:26)
Then he must remove all the goat’s fat, just as he does with the fat of the peace offering. He will burn the fat on the altar, and it will be a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Through this process, the priest will purify the people, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:31) Then he must remove all the sheep’s fat, just as he does with the fat of a sheep presented as a peace offering. He will burn the fat on the altar on top of the special gifts presented to the Lord. Through this process, the priest will purify the people from their sin, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:35)
The priest will then prepare the second bird as a burnt offering, following all the procedures that have been prescribed. Through this process the priest will purify you from your sin, making you right with the Lord, and you will be forgiven. (Leviticus 5:10) Through this process, the priest will purify those who are guilty of any of these sins, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. The rest of the flour will belong to the priest, just as with the grain offering.” (Leviticus 5:13)
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