Is It Too Late To Change Your Diet?

You Can Improve Your Health At Any Age

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Fast Food ExamplesIf you are like most Americans, your dietary preferences as an adult are based on the foods your family ate while you were growing up.

  • Your favorite foods…
  • Your comfort foods…
  • The foods you always avoid…

…are based on your family heritage, not on your genes. And if you are like most Americans, your diet isn’t healthy.

  • It’s high in fat and cholesterol…
  • It’s high in sugar and refined carbohydrates…
  • It’s high in processed foods…
  • It’s low in whole, unprocessed foods…
  • It’s high in calories, so your waistline keeps growing.

You know your diet isn’t healthy, but you keep coasting along through your 30’s and 40’s until…the unthinkable happens. You are diagnosed with a deadly disease, like heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes, and your doctor says that unless you change your diet, you are doomed to a short unhealthy life. You have reached a fork in Food Choicesthe road.

Changing the diet you grew up with, the diet you love, is a daunting task. It’s tempting to think, “Why bother…

  • It’s probably too late to change my diet…
  • The damage has already been done…
  • I can’t reverse it now.”

If this scenario describes you or someone you love, you aren’t alone. There are millions of Americans just like you. You want to know whether changing your diet is worth the trouble. You want to know whether it is too late, or whether you can still change your health for the better.

Most clinical studies don’t answer this question. Most clinical studies do a diet assessment at the beginning of the study and look at health outcomes 20 or 30 years later. If they do more than one diet assessment during the study, the purpose of these assessments is to show that most people stick to the same diet throughout the study.

These studies measure the effect of habitual diets on health outcomes. They tell you that good diets lead to good health outcomes, and bad diets lead to bad health outcomes. But they don’t tell you whether changing your diet from bad to good in your 30’s or 40’s can have a significant effect on your health.

Fortunately, a recent study has answered this question. This study (Y Choi et al, Journal of The American Heart Association, 10e020718, 2021) started with people in their mid-20s. It looked at whether changing their diet from bad to good in their 30s and 40s had any effect on their risk of developing heart disease in their 50s and 60s.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from the CARDIA study (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults). The study enrolled 4946 young adults (average age = 25, 55% female and 45% male, 50% black and 50% white) and followed them for 32 years (average age of participants at the end of the study = 57).

Diet was assessed by a trained interviewer at year 0, year 7 (average age of participants = 32), and year 20 (average age of participants = 45).

Adherence of the participants to a healthy, plant-centered diet was assessed using an analytical tool called APDQS that divided the foods eaten by the participants into 3 groups based on their known influence on heart disease:

1) Beneficial.

    • These foods included fruit, avocado, beans/legumes, green vegetables, yellow vegetables, tomatoes, other vegetables, nuts and seeds, soy products, whole grains, vegetable oil, fatty fish, lean fish, poultry, moderate alcohol, coffee, tea, and low-fat milk/cheese/yogurt.
    • This is what the investigators considered a plant-centered diet. It encompasses diets ranging from vegan to Mediterranean and DASH.

2) Adverse.

    • These foods included fried potatoes, refined grain desserts, salty snacks, pastries, sweets, high-fat red meats, processed meats, organ meats, fried fish/poultry, sauces, soft drinks, whole fat milk/cheese/yogurt, and butter.
    • This could be considered a typical American diet.

3) Neutral.

    • These foods included potatoes, refined grains, margarine, chocolate, meal replacements, pickled foods, lean meats, shellfish, eggs, soups, and fruit juices.
    • These foods are not the healthiest, but the evidence that they have a negative effect on health disease risk is inconclusive.

The participants were divided into 5 quintiles based on adherence to a plant-centered diet, with quintile 1 having the lowest adherence and quintile 5 having the highest adherence to a plant-centered diet.

The effect of diet on heart disease was measured in two ways:

1) The dietary data from years 0, 7 and 20 were averaged and the effect of average adherence to a plant-centered diet on the risk of developing heart disease by the time the participants were 57 was measured. This is similar to the design of most other studies looking at the effect of diet and heart disease.

2) The effect of an improvement in adherence to a plant-centered diet between ages of 32 and 45 on the risk of developing heart disease by age 57 was also measured. This is what makes this study unique. Basically, the investigators were asking if you could eat a bad diet for 30 years or more and still reduce your risk of heart disease by switching to a good diet by the age of 45. That is the question that millions of American are asking themselves right now.

Is It Too Late To Change Your Diet?

Heart Healthy DietAs I described above this study asked two distinct questions:

1) What effect does your habitual diet have on your risk of developing heart disease?

For this portion of the study, the investigators averaged the dietary data collected in years 0, 7, and 20 of the study and ranked the participants diet from 1 to 5 based on their adherence to a plant-centered diet. When they compared the group with best adherence (group 5) with the group with worst adherence (group 1):

    • Adherence to a plant-centered diet reduced their risk of developing heart disease by 48%.
    • This is consistent with previous studies looking at the beneficial effects of plant-centered diets on heart disease.

2) What effect does changing your diet from bad to good when you are in your 30s or 40s have on your risk of developing heart disease? 

For this portion of the study, the investigators compared the dietary data collected at years 7 and 20 (corresponding to average ages 32 and 45 for the participants) and ranked the participants from 1 to 5 based on improved adherence to a plant-centered diet. When they compared the group with best improvement in adherence (group 5) with the group with worst improvement in adherence (group 1):

    • Improved adherence to a plant-centered diet reduced the risk of developing heart disease by 39%.
    • This answers the questions I posed at the beginning of this article. In short, it is never too late to change your diet for the better.

The authors concluded, “In summary, our study shows that long-term consumption of a nutritionally rich plant-centered diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Furthermore, increased [adherence to a] plant-centered diet in young adulthood is associated with a lower subsequent risk of heart disease throughout middle age, independent of the earlier diet quality” [In short, they are saying that changing to a more plant-centered diet in your 30s and 40s reduces your risk of heart disease.]

You Can Improve Your Health At Any Age

I titled this section, “You Can Improve Your Health At Any Age” for a reason. I wanted to make the point that it is never too late to change your diet, and your health, for the better.

Yes, I realize that the study I described above only shows:

  • The effect of changing to a more plant-centered diet in your 30s and 40s.
  • The benefit of changing to a more plant-centered diet on heart disease outcomes.

However, we have ample evidence that changing to a more plant-based diet at any age is likely to reduce the risk of many diseases. For example:

  • There are multiple reports in the literature of people in their 60s and 70s who had a health scare, changed to a more plant-centered diet, and dramatically improved their health.

While neither type of study can be considered definitive by itself, together they suggest it is never too late to change your diet for the better.

But what changes should you make? As I said above, anything from Vegan to Mediterranean or DASH fits the definition of a plant-centered diet (something I have previously referred to as a primarily plant-based diet).

You could choose the plant-centered diet that best fits your preferences and lifestyle and read books or go online to find details and recipes that will help you transition to that diet…or you could simply:

  • Eat more fruit, avocado, beans/legumes, green vegetables, yellow vegetables, tomatoes, other vegetables, nuts and seeds, soy products, whole grains, vegetable oil, fatty fish, lean fish, poultry, moderate alcohol, coffee, tea, and low-fat milk/cheese/yogurt.
  • Eat less fried potatoes, refined grain desserts, salty snacks, pastries, sweets, high-fat red meats, processed meats, organ meats, fried fish/poultry, sauces, soft drinks, whole fat milk/cheese/yogurt, and butter.
  • Eat these foods in moderation: potatoes, refined grains, margarine, chocolate, meal replacements, pickled foods, lean meats, shellfish, eggs, soups, and fruit juices.

The Bottom Line

If you are like most Americans, you know your diet is unhealthy. But it is the diet you grew up with. It’s the diet you love. So, you keep eating it anyway.

Then you have a wake-up call. You find yourself in your doctor’s office, and your doctor is advising you to change your diet. But giving up the diet you love is difficult, and you wonder if it is worth it. Can you really improve your health significantly by changing your diet now, or is it too late? Has the damage already been done?

Fortunately, a recent study has answered these questions. This study started with people in their mid-20s. And it looked at whether changing their diet from bad to good in their 30s and 40s had any effect on their health in their 50s and 60s. This is what the study found.

  • Improved adherence to a plant-centered diet in their 30s and 40s reduced their risk of developing heart disease in their 50s and 60s by 39%.

While this study was very specific in terms of age and disease, I have discussed in the article above why changing to a more plant-based diet at any age is likely to reduce your risk of multiple diseases. In short, it is never too late to change your diet, and your health, for the better.

For more details about this study and how to change your diet for the better, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

A Diet To Die For

Which Diet Is Best? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Heart AttackMany clinical studies focus on the benefits or risks associated with individual components of our diet. For example, we have been told:

  • Saturated and trans fats are bad for us and monounsaturated and omega-3 fats are good for us.
  • Sugar and refined carbohydrates are bad for us, but complex carbohydrates are good for us.

However, we don’t eat saturated fats or sugars in isolation. They are part of a diet with many other foods. Do other foods in our diet affect the risks we associate with saturated fat or sugar? We don’t know.

Simply put, we don’t eat foods, we eat diets. We don’t eat saturated fats, we eat diets. It would be more helpful for the average person if research focused on which diets are good and bad for us instead of which foods are good and bad for us.

One recent study (JM Shikany et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 10:e019158, 2021) did just that. It evaluated the effect of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death (dropping dead from a stroke or heart attack).

  • It turns out that one of the diets significantly increases your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to die for”.
  • Another diet significantly decreases your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to live for”.
  • The other diets had no significant effect on the risk of sudden cardiac death.

You are probably wondering, “What were the diets?”; “Which diet is best?”; and “Which diet is worst?” I cover that below, but first we should look at how the study was designed.

How Was The Study Designed?

Clinical StudyThe study involved 21,069 participants in the REGARDS (Reasons for Geographical and Racial Differences in Stroke) clinical trial who were followed for an average of 10 years. This clinical trial enrolled:

  • 30% of its participants from what is called the “the stroke belt” (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana).
  • 20% of its participants from what is called “the stroke buckle” (the coastal plain of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia).
  • 50% of its participants from elsewhere in the continental United States.

At the beginning of the study, participants were given a medical exam and filled out an extensive questionnaire on diet.

Based on the diet analysis, the participants were ranked for adherence to six dietary patterns.

#1: The Convenience Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on pre-packaged or restaurant meals, pasta dishes, pizza, Mexican food, and Chinese food.

#2: The Plant-Based Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on vegetables, fruits, fruit juice, cereal, beans, fish, poultry, and yogurt.

#3: The Sweets Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on added sugars, desserts, chocolate, candy, and sweetened breakfast foods.

#4: The Southern Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on added fats, fried food, eggs and egg dishes, organ meats, processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

#5: The Alcohol and Salad Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on beer, wine, liquor, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and salad dressing.

#6: The Mediterranean Pattern. Adherence to the Mediterranean dietary pattern was based on the well-established Mediterranean Diet Score.

  • Points are added for beneficial foods (vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grain cereals, nuts, and fish).
  • Points are subtracted for detrimental foods (meat and dairy).
  • Points are added for a high ratio of monounsaturated fats to saturated fats (think diets rich in olive oil).
  • One point is added for moderate alcohol consumption, Zero or excess alcohol consumption is assigned 0 points.

The study looked at the correlation of these dietary patterns with the incidence of sudden cardiac death during the 10-year study.

A Diet To Die For

deadThe results were striking.

  • The Southern Diet increased the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death 2.2-fold. Basically, it doubled the risk.
    • In people with no previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Southern Diet increased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 2.3-fold.
    • In people with a previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Southern Diet increased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 2-fold.
  • The Mediterranean Diet decreased the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death 41%.
    • In people with no previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Mediterranean Diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 51%. Basically, it cut the risk in half.
    • In people with a previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Mediterranean Diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 23%, but that decrease was not statistically significant.
  • None of the other diets had a significant effect on the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death.

In the words of the authors, “We identified a trend towards an inverse association of the Mediterranean diet score and a positive association of adherence to the Southern dietary pattern with risk of sudden cardiac death.” [That is a fancy way of saying the Mediterranean diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death, and the Southern dietary pattern increased the risk of sudden cardiac death.]

Which Diet Is Best?

AwardThe Mediterranean Diet Is Best: In this analysis of the effects of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death, it is obvious that the Mediterranean diet is best. It cut the risk of sudden cardiac death in half.

This should come as no surprise:

  • I have reported on a previous study showing that the Mediterranean diet decreases the risk of heart disease by 47%.
  • In the Woman’s Health Study the Mediterranean diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 36%.
  • In the Nurses’ Health Study there was an inverse association between the Mediterranean Diet Score and sudden cardiac death.

The Southern Dietary Pattern Was Worst. It doubled the risk of sudden cardiac death. As someone who grew up in the South, this comes as no surprise to me. Let me count the ways:

  • It starts with a breakfast of fried eggs, grits with “red-eye gravy” (a mixture of ham drippings and coffee), ham or sausage, and biscuits made with lots of lard and sugar.
  • When I was growing up, a snack might be an RC cola and moon pies (look that one up).
  • Dinner might be fried chicken and hushpuppies or fried fish and hushpuppies.
  • Instead of picnics we have pig pickins (which is pretty much what it sounds like).
  • And we boil our vegetables with fatback (pig fat) and sugar.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Don’t get me wrong, I have fond memories of the foods I ate while growing up in the South. I just don’t eat them much anymore.

Why Didn’t The Plant-Based Dietary Pattern Score Better? One of the surprises from this study was that the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern didn’t score better. After all, numerous studies have shown that mostly plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease. Why did it strike out in this study?Vegan Foods

My feeling is that the study did not adequately describe a true Plant-Based Dietary Pattern. As I described above, participants following the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern were identified as having above average consumption of vegetables, fruits, fruit juice, cereal, beans, fish, poultry, and yogurt compared to others in this study. I have two concerns with this classification.

  • As described, this is a semi-vegetarian diet, while the best results for reducing heart disease risk are seen with strict vegetarian and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets.
  • However, my biggest concern is that we don’t know what other foods they were consuming. Were they also consuming convenience foods? Were they consuming sweets? We don’t know.

That is very different from the two dietary patterns that stood out in this study.

  • 50% of the participants in this study came the Southeastern region of the United States. So, when the study identified participants as following a Southern Dietary Pattern based on a few southern foods, it is likely that those participants ate many other southern foods as well.

If 50% of the participants in the study had come from the Loma Linda area of California where vegetarianism is much more common, the study might have done a better job of identifying participants consuming a plant-based diet.

  • While participants consuming the Mediterranean diet were more scattered geographically, the Mediterranean Diet Score used to identify people consuming a Mediterranean diet is much more detailed and has been validated in numerous previous studies.

In short, the Southern and Mediterranean Dietary Patterns may have stood out in this study because they provided a more precise distinction between those consuming a Southern or Mediterranean diet and those following other dietary patterns. If the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern had been more precisely described, it might have shown a statistically significant benefit as well.

The Bottom Line

Many clinical studies focus on the benefits or risks associated with individual components of our diet.

However, we don’t eat foods, we eat diets. It would be more helpful for the average person if research focused on which diets are good and bad for us instead of which foods are good and bad for us.

One recent study did just that. It evaluated the effect of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death (dropping dead from a stroke or heart attack).

  • It turns out that the Southern diet doubles your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to die for”.
  • In contrast, the Mediterranean diet cuts your risk of sudden cardiac death in half. I call that one, “A diet to live for”.
  • The other diets had no significant effect on the risk of sudden cardiac death.

For more details on the study, why the Southern diet is so bad for us, and why the Mediterranean diet is so good for us, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor