Did you know? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 40% of the leading five causes of annual deaths in the United States are preventable.

By adopting a healthy diet, taking the time to relax and be with family, and putting in the effort to exercise, the chances of developing afflictions of the modern age – which are, unfortunately, increasing in prevalence – decrease substantially.

And now, according to researchers from Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, there’s validation for the thought that food can be one’s medicine. 

By analyzing thousands of diets over a period of 14 years, it was discovered that better eating habits and better foods have saved more than a million American lives.

The scientists used a measure called the Alternative Healthy Eating Index 2010 to gauge what people ate. Ranging from zero (the poorest diet) to 110 (the highest diet possible), they used the scale to measure changes in 34,000 people’s diets from 1999 to 2014. They then added in information about the eating habits of 173,000 other people in two other nutrition studies.

According to the study, published in the journal Health Affairs, 1.1 million premature deaths have been prevented by healthy diet and lifestyle changes.

The healthier diets had reduced the number of people getting life-threatening diseases, as well, reports CBS News. Researchers saw the number of type 2 diabetes decline by more than 12%, cardiovascular disease decrease by 8%, and cancer cases drop by 1.3%.

They noted that the single biggest change to diets over the past 14 years has been the result of new federal and local rules on trans fats.

Once trans fats were recognized to be unhealthy in 1999, the FDA posted tighter rules on the artery-clogging fats. Shortly after, individual U.S. states followed suit: New York City outlawed trans fats in 2006, and California banned them in restaurant food in 2008.

This change, according to the Harvard researchers, accounted for half the improvement in dietary quality over the course of their study.

It was also noted that during this time, people drank 36% fewer sugary drinks.

“The study shows that healthy diets should be a public priority,” said Dong Wang, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at the Chan School. He argues that changes to public food support programs, like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), could significantly improve health and life expectancy in America.

Even though the average diet score during the study topped 50 on the scale – less than halfway to the perfect diet – researchers noticed improvements in health and life expectancy. 

“The most important takeaway is that even small improvement in dietary quality can lead to substantial reduction in disease risk and disease burden,” noted Wang.

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