CHICAGO (AP) -- Women who eat a wide variety of healthy foods may significantly lower their risk of dying from such things as cancer, heart disease and stroke, a study suggests.
The findings might sound familiar, but this is the first time that the health effects of overall eating patterns have been studied, researchers said.
They found a diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat meat and dairy products reduces a woman's chances of dying -- up to 30 percent for women who ate the healthiest diets compared with those with the most unhealthy eating habits.
Most previous studies have looked at the health effects of specific nutrients, foods or dietary habits -- such as eating low-fat foods -- but not at overall eating patterns, said Dr. Arthur Schatzkin, chief of the National Cancer Institute's nutritional epidemiology branch and one of the study's authors.
"It's another way of following the standard advice, but may be a strategy that makes it easier for people to adopt dietary guidelines," he said.
The study, published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association, was based on questionnaires completed between 1987 and 1989 by more than 42,000 women.
Researchers then looked at 23 recommended foods and counted how many times the women reported eating those foods at least once a week, giving each woman a score based on the responses. The scores were compared with death rates among those women 51/2 to six years after the survey was completed.
The study found women's risk of dying decreased as the scores went up. Those who ate the highest amount of recommended foods were 30 percent less likely to die than those who ate the lowest.
"We were trying to come up with a fairly simple and practical approach to looking at overall diet in terms of diversity of food and recommended food," Schatzkin said. "It is nice that a simple approach to changing the way you eat improves health and increases longevity."
The study does not prove a healthy diet alone accounted for the results, because people who eat the healthiest food are probably also more likely to do other healthy things such as exercising and avoiding smoking, said Schatzkin and Madelyn Fernstrom, an expert in nutrition and obesity treatment who heads the weight management center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
But they said the results suggest a simpler approach to achieving good health. Fernstrom, who was not involved in the study, said people often are too caught up in selecting foods for specific nutrients or fat levels instead of simply eating a wide variety of healthy foods.
Concentrating on simply eating a variety of healthy food "takes the magic bullet approach of particular foods away."
"Food is not medicine," she said. "The whole diet counts."