The Harvard Diet Plan: Is the alternative healthy eating index the world’s best diet?

We have known for some time that a Mediterranean diet – the eating plan packed full of brightly colored fresh fruits and vegetables, a decent load of good fat thanks to the liberal use of extra virgin olive oil and loads of fish, nuts and seeds is one of the healthiest diets in the world.

A true Mediterranean diet, in which little to no processed food is consumed, has long been associated with a longer life span and a lower risk of developing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

What we did not know was that more than 20 years ago, a Harvard developed a diet that has since proven to be even healthier than the Mediterranean approach: the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), also a researcher known as the Harvard Diet Plan.

Recent data from more than 100,000 people shows that not only is the risk of premature death reduced by as much as 20 per cent in those who most closely follow the plan, but the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease is also reduced by as much as 30 per cent, which is higher than the reduction in risk associated with the Mediterranean diet.

What is the Harvard Diet Plan?

The Harvard Diet Plan was developed by nutrition scientist Dr. Walter Willett, and can be described as more of a ‘guide’ than a diet, encouraging users to increase their consumption of fresh foods high in nutrients, as well as actively avoid such nasties as sugary drinks and processed meat.

Here, rather than a set meal plan with diet ‘rules’, users are given index points for eating more of certain foods and extra points to avoid the bad stuff. The final ‘score’ is the number associated with a longer life span and lower disease risk.

When it comes to calculating your personal ‘index’, more points are awarded to the strongest health habits – eating more than five servings of vegetables, eating fresh fruit, choosing only whole grain carbohydrates such as grain bread or brown rice and eating more legumes, nuts and seeds.

Then, bonus points are awarded if foods closely associated with disease risks such as processed meats and sugary drinks are avoided.

In summary, the Harvard Plan Score is engineered as a positive food reinforcement strategy that encourages and rewards healthier food choices.

How does it differ from the Mediterranean diet?

Like the Mediterranean diet, the Harvard approach is not a prescriptive diet plan. Rather, it is a dietary platform that focuses on eating a lot more fresh food and a higher proportion of good fats from olive oil, nuts and seeds than the average Western diet, which is much higher in saturated fats and processed snack foods.

The major differentiating factor between the two diets is that the Harvard approach also focuses on minimizing the intake of any refined carbohydrates, processed fats and sugary drinks – foods that are closely associated with weight gain and an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

The pros

Any diet that works on building strong habits over time rather than a strict regime that becomes impossible to follow long term is a smart option.

Unlike many popular diets, the Harvard Plan also places a significant focus on the whole grain content of the diet, a food type very few Australians get anywhere near enough of given our obsession with refined white carbohydrates in the form of thick slabs of white bread, white rice , wraps and noodles.

The plan also takes a strong position on the importance of avoiding all types of sweet drinks – including fruit juice – which reflects the evidence showing sweet drinks have no place in any healthy diet long term.

The cons

The Harvard Diet was developed by researchers as a tool to assess individuals’ diets using a single numerical value that could then be used in comparison with death and disease rates of large population data sets.

It was not designed as a clinical dietary prescription. This means that just because you get a high or perfect score, you are not guaranteed a long and disease-free life.

In saying that, if you have time, it is a great dietary tool to help you review your own diet, and see if there are any swaps or additions that may be helpful in improving your nutritional intake, and ultimately your risk of developing diabetes or heart disease.

Which diet is the best?

The best diet is one that is sustainable and the good thing about both a Mediterranean approach and the Harvard plan is that they encourage the consumption of more fresh food and positive dietary habits that can be maintained long term.

The average Aussie currently eats a diet that is so profoundly different from both of these diets: fewer than one in 10 are getting a minimum daily intake of fruits and vegetables, only one in four people are getting the recommended intake of whole grains each day and the the average Aussie consumes double their daily recommended upper intake of sugar.

As such, adopting even some of the dietary structure and recommendations of either the Mediterranean or Harvard Diet is an excellent starting point.

The take-home message

It’s not enough to tick the box on a number of key foods to eat in a way that supports longevity and helps prevent lifestyle diseases. You have to get rid of the processed rubbish as well: the sugary drinks, the white carbs, the fatty meat and the processed snacks.

Just eating more vegetables cooked in olive oil won’t be enough to help you lead a long and healthy life.

Day on a plate

Breakfast: Whole grain oats with fresh fruit and a sprinkle of seeds.

Lunch: Large salad with edamame and salmon. Piece of fruit. Slice of whole grain bread.

Snacks: Handful of nuts. Piece of fruit.

Dinner: Brown rice with tofu and vegetable stir fry.

super: Fruit and Greek yogurt

Susie Burrell is a dietitian and nutritionist and holds a Master’s degree in coaching psychology. Susie is the resident dietitian on Channel 7’s Sunrise and has been a dietitian for more than 20 years.

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