Ensuring that diets include the right amount of certain foods may help the U.S. cut deaths from heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes by almost half, suggests a new study.
About 45 percent of deaths from those causes in 2012 could be blamed on people eating too much or too little of 10 types of foods, researchers found.
"The good news is that we now understand more about which foods would help prevent Americans from dying prematurely from cardiometabolic diseases," said lead author Renata Micha, of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
Messages to patients, the public and industry can emphasize maximizing good foods instead of just focusing on cutting back on bad foods and products, she told Reuters Health in an email.
Messages can also focus on foods instead of individual nutrients, she said.
As reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the new study's findings are drawn from a variety of sources, including National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys collected from 1999 to 2002 and 2009 to 2012.
Micha and colleagues identified 10 dietary components closely tied to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes: sodium, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, unprocessed red meats, processed meats, polyunsaturated fats like soybean or corn oils, seafood omega-3 fats and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Based on participants' food diaries, the researchers estimated that 318,656 of the 702,308 deaths from heart disease, stroke or type 2 diabetes were tied to people getting too much or too little of those 10 foods or dietary factors.
Too much sodium was tied to 66,508 deaths, for example, while not enough nuts and seeds was tied to 59,374 deaths. Too much processed meat was tied to 57,766 deaths, too little fatty fish to 54,626 deaths, and too few vegetables to 53,410 deaths. There were 52,547 deaths attributed to too little fruit and 51,695 deaths tied to too many sugar-sweetened beverages.
The burden of poor diets wasn't equally distributed, however.
During the course of the study, men were more likely than women to die of cardiometabolic diseases related to suboptimal diets. Younger people were more at risk than older people. Blacks or Hispanics were more at risk than whites. People with less education were also more at risk than their more educated counterparts.
The researchers did find that deaths in the U.S. from cardiometabolic diseases decreased by more than 25 percent between the two survey periods. During that time, people's diets improved, as they consumed more polyunsaturated fats, nuts and seeds, whole grains and fruits and fewer sugar-sweetened beverages.
"Eating healthy is key, and if we remember that simple fact, most of us can have healthier and better lives," said Micha.
Noel Mueller, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, told Reuters Health that the results can inform public policy by showing what foods to emphasize.
"People should know that there is not going to be any silver bullet in terms of completely reducing the risk of cardiometabolic disease," said Mueller, who co-wrote an editorial accompanying the new study. "It’s going to take a multi-pronged dietary approach."
Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the study's senior author and dean of the Friedman School at Tufts University, told Reuters Health that the food system and environment needs to change to help individuals.
"Within the food system, people can look at the dietary factors and target one that they want to tackle," said Mozaffarian. When they reach their goal of improving that dietary factor, they can move on to another.