Dietary Patterns – What are they and what is the research saying?

All food contains nutrients.

We know that certain nutrients can either improve our health or increase our risk of developing chronic disease. For decades the focus of nutrition has been looking at what single nutrients individuals are consuming. These are things like protein, carbohydrates, fat, sugar and fibre.

But as humans we do not eat single nutrients, we eat foods.

The foods we eat provide a complex mixture of nutrients which may have positive or negative effects on health. Nutrients also correlate with each other, for example cocoa contains hundreds of different nutrients, and thus, many studies determining the effect of a single nutrient in products like cocoa can be problematic.

So as the times are changing, and we move away from writing and reading newspapers to typing on Ipads and tablets, nutrition research is also changing. Nutrition research is steering away from single nutrients but now focussing on what foods, how the nutrients in these foods interplay with each other, the variety of foods and the quantity of foods we consume over days, weeks, months and years and how this might affect our health outcomes.

This is ideology known as dietary patterns.

What is a dietary pattern?

Researchers from the British Medical Journal define dietary patterns or food patterns as

‘… The quantities, proportions, variety, or combination of different foods and drinks in diets, and the frequency with which they are habitually consumed’.

An example of a dietary pattern is the Mediterranean diet which includes high consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, beans, nuts and seeds. Olive oil is the key monounsaturated fat source, dairy products, fish and poultry are consumed in low to moderate amounts, little red meat is eaten, eggs are eaten zero to four times a week and wine is drunk in moderate (or low) amounts.

Other examples of dietary patterns includes a Plant based diet which comprises of high intakes of vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, tubers and fruits, with no animal products (meat, fish, eggs, dairy and poultry) or processed foods. Healthful dietary patterns includes high consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains with limited intakes of processed meats.

Why dietary patterns?

Investigating the complex relationship of nutrients in our diets can help provide evidence for positive health outcomes with changes to our total diet not just one aspect of it. It also provides practical information for the public as people choose to eat foods, not nutrients. This research can be used to create dietary guidelines, which is what our Australian Dietary Guidelines are based on.



How do they differ from traditional diets?

This depends on how you define and interpret the word ‘diet’. From a health professional’s perspective, diet generally refers to the foods people habitually consume or are on a set way of eating for medical reasons which in this scenario diet and dietary patterns are basically the same thing. However, when you think of diet and words like, ‘restriction’, ‘prescribed way of eating for a short time’, ‘weight loss’ come to mind, then dietary patterns and diets are different things.

What is the research showing?

While the research is currently new, there are limited studies investigating the health outcomes of dietary patterns. However, researchers from University of Athens (Greece) have recently investigated the effects of the Mediterranean diet and various health outcomes. The diet score developed by the researchers was associated with the frequency of consumption of particular food groups. This study was conducted using data from 3000 men and women and the researchers found an association between diet score and health outcomes. A higher diet score was associated with a 27% decrease risk of coronary events i.e. heart attacks, ischaemic heart failure or angina. The researchers also found that a higher diet score was also associatedwith a reduction in blood pressure, total cholesterol and body mass index as well as an increase in antioxidants.

Similarly, researchers from the American Dietetic Association also found that the Mediterranean diet was associated with a lower risk of death from all causes. Cardiovascular disease risk was also lower in individuals with higher dietary index scores. The researchers from the American Dietetic Association similarly found that higher dietary scores was correlated with a lower risk of all-sites cancer mortality but this was not consistent. A lower risk of death from all causes was also associated with healthful dietary patterns that were high in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and fish while the western diet pattern consisting of high intakes of red meat, processed meat, pre-packaged foods and refined grains was associated with an increased risk.

What can you take away from all of this?

The research area is new and studies in this area are limited. However, it seems as though healthful patterns such as the Mediterranean diet which consists of high intakes of fruit, vegetables, and wholegrains do play a beneficial role in our health while dietary patterns high in refined grains, processed meats and pre-packaged foods can have negative effects on our health and longevity.

As research is moving away from single nutrients, start to think more about your habitual eating patterns and start to consider about what you eat over days, weeks and even months as it all can have a significant impact on our health.

Stay tuned for upcoming research in this new, but fascinating area!