Is the Harvard Plan the healthiest diet you’ve never heard of?

The Mediterranean diet has long been the gold standard for healthy eating and longevity, but a new approach known as the Harvard Plan may be even better.

By now, you probably know all about the Mediterranean diet.

Based on foods readily available in regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, it’s been linked to all kinds of health benefits, from reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes to protection against depression and certain cancers.

But a recent study suggests the Harvard Plan (also known as the Alternative Healthy Eating Index) not only lowers risk for those same illnesses, it may actually be more effective than the Mediterranean diet in protecting against early death.

What is the Harvard Plan?

Developed by Harvard University researchers to measure how well people’s diets adhere to the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate – a visual guide for creating healthy, balanced meals.

It recommends many of the same food choices as the Mediterranean diet, such as vegetables and fruit, wholegrains, nuts, legumes and olive oil, as well as eating fish regularly.

The Harvard Plan also pinpoints foods to limit or avoid – such as fruit juice and sugar-sweetened drinks, red and processed meats, sodium, alcohol and trans fatty acids.

Clinical nutritionist Andrea Zapantis says this is one of the plan’s strengths.

“One of the key benefits of the Harvard Plan is that it helps individuals stay accountable for their nutritional health,” the KYH Nutrition founder says.

“The plan provides clear guidelines on what to eat and what to avoid, making it easier for people to make healthy choices.”

Why the Harvard Plan is a guide, not a diet

Much like the Mediterranean diet, the Harvard Plan isn’t designed to be prescriptive, which nutritionist and exercise physiologist Veronika Larisova says is another of its strengths.

“Super prescriptive diets never work long-term,” Veronika says.

“Food is one of the joys in life and if we can’t eat what we enjoy or if we must adhere to a strict plan, it makes us feel deprived and we eventually crack.

“Choosing meals we want based on guidelines leads to better habits we can carry through life.”

How to try the Harvard Plan

While the Harvard Plan assigns your diet a score from 0 to 110 based on how well it follows its guidelines, Harvard-affiliated experts say the scoring system is not practical in everyday life.

More achievable is to strive to make your meals match the downloadable Harvard Healthy Eating Plate, where fruit and veggies cover half the plate, wholegrains cover a quarter and healthy protein accounts for the final quarter.

“Visual aids can also be very useful in helping people understand portion sizes and relative amounts of the different food groups,” Andrea says.

Why good health is about more than diet

It is also worth noting that while the healthy eating plate recommends staying active, the Harvard Plan does not discriminate based on how much exercise you do.

“Diet plays a big part in human health, but there’s definitely more to it,” Veronika says.

“Daily physical activity has many benefits for our physical and mental health that you can’t replicate from diet alone.

“We also need to train our minds using things like meditation and stress-management strategies, have a community around us and have a purpose in life.”

More on healthy eating:

Written by Karen Fittall.