TUESDAY, July 14, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Eating a healthy diet was linked to lower death rates from heart disease, cancer and other diseases among low-income adults living in the southeastern United States, a new study reports.
Previous studies have suggested that people with low incomes, particularly black men, have limited access to grocery stores and healthy foods, the researchers said. But few studies have examined the link between diet quality and disease-related deaths.
"This is the first study to our knowledge reporting this association in a low-income population that largely comprises African Americans," the study's lead author, Dr. Wei Zheng, director of the Vanderbilt Epidemiology Center in Nashville, and chief of the division of epidemiology, said in a university news release.
The take-home message: A better diet can help prevent illness "in this underserved population," said Zheng, who is also a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University.
The study involved data from almost 78,000 adults who participated in the Southern Community Cohort Study from 2002 to 2009. The participants were all aged 40 to 79, and 65 percent of them were black. For more than half of them, annual household incomes were less than $15,000, the researchers said.
Study volunteers completed detailed questionnaires that described the types of foods they ate and how much. The healthfulness of their diet was assessed using federal standards outlined in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Healthy Eating Index.
These guidelines emphasize a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, legumes and nuts. A healthy diet is also low in red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and refined grains. In addition, low- or non-fat dairy and alcohol should be consumed in moderation.
The researchers also looked at follow-up information collected over a period of about six years. During this time, almost 7,000 of the study participants died. Of these, more than 2,200 died from heart disease, almost 1,800 from cancer and 2,550 from other diseases, the study revealed.
Even after the researchers adjusted the results to account for participants' age, weight, level of physical activity, smoking status and medical history, the investigators found that those with the healthiest diet had a roughly 20 percent lower risk of death from these diseases than those with the unhealthiest diets.
The study was published online recently in PLOS Medicine.
The American Heart Association has more about good nutrition.