Healthier eating saves lives.
Over 1 million early deaths in the United States were prevented by better eating habits over the course of 13 years, according to new research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Improved diet also accounted for roughly 12 percent fewer cases of type 2 diabetes, around 8 percent fewer cardiovascular incidents, and about 1 percent fewer cases of cancer during that time.
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And "healthier" didn't even involve that much: Very small improvements in diet made a difference in reducing the risk of preventable disease and premature death, noted the team.
That said, Americans have a long way to go when it comes to eating better.
Between 1999 and 2012, when researchers gathered the data, U.S. adults ate better than they did in previous years, but only fractionally. Using a point system to rank healthy eating from 0 to 110 - with 110 as the healthiest - none of the participants' scores broke 50.
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Given the current collective state of health in the United States, boosting these numbers could be considered a public health emergency. Children today are expected to live shorter lives than their parents - the first time in 200 years that life expectancy has gone down instead of up.
And all the leading causes of death in the United States today - heart disease, cancer, lung disease and stroke - are considered largely preventable. Diet is one lifestyle interventions that can help stave off those chronic diseases.
"Our findings provide further justification for promoting healthful diets as a national priority for chronic disease prevention, as well as for legislative and regulatory actions to improve the food supply more broadly," lead author Dong Wang said in a release.
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So what are some of those food-supply-improving actions that could make a difference while still being cost effective? Implementing a soda tax, banning tax subsidies for unhealthy food ads aimed at children and setting nutrition guidelines for foods sold on school property outside meal time, noted the experts.
These approaches work, in part, because they catch people when they're young.
"Interventions early in the life course have the best chance of reducing long-term obesity prevalence and related mortality and health care costs," study author Steven Gortmaker said in the release.