According to research, a healthy diet is linked to better fitness. This study presents some of the most robust and in-depth data to support the association that healthier diets could lead to better fitness. The improvement in fitness seen in individuals with healthier diets was comparable to the effect of getting 4,000 more steps per day.
Cardiorespiratory fitness reflects the body’s ability to supply and use oxygen for exercise and incorporates the health of multiple organ systems, which include muscles, blood vessels, lungs, and the heart. It is one of the most reliable predictors of health and longevity.
Although exercise improves cardiorespiratory fitness, there are also fitness differences in individuals who exercise the same amount, suggesting other contributing factors. A nutritious diet is linked to a variety of health benefits, but whether it’s also associated with fitness is unclear.
This study examined whether a healthy diet is linked to physical fitness in 2,380 individuals with a mean age of 54 from the Framingham Heart Study.
To measure peak VO2, a cardiopulmonary exercise test was performed on a cycle ergometer with maximum effort. This is the gold standard fitness rating and shows the amount of oxygen used while exercising at the highest possible intensity.
They also completed the Harvard Food Frequency Questionnaire to assess consumption of 126 foods over the past year, ranging from never or less than once a month to 6 or more servings per day.
The information was used to assess diet quality using the Mediterranean diet score from 0 to 25 and the Alternative Healthy Eating Index from 0 to 110, both of which linked to heart health. Higher scores were an indication of a healthier diet that emphasized fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish and healthy fats, and limited alcohol and red meat.
The connection between diet quality and fitness was evaluated after controlling for other factors that could influence the association, such as gender, age, body mass index, total daily energy consumption, cholesterol levels, smoking, diabetes, blood pressure, and routine physical activity levels.
The mean scores on the Alternative Healthy Consuming Index and the Mediterranean diet were 66.7 and 12.4, respectively. Compared with the mean score, a 13-point increase on the Alternative Healthy Consuming Index and a 4.7-point increase on the Mediterranean Diet score was linked with 5.2% and 4.5% higher peak VO2.
Healthy dietary patterns were favorably linked with fitness in middle-aged individuals even after taking into account usual activity levels. The association was comparable in men and women and more evident in individuals younger than 54 years than in older individuals.
To understand the potential mechanism behind the association between fitness and diet, the researchers performed further analyses. The association between diet quality, fitness and metabolites was examined. Metabolites are substances produced during the digestive process and released into the blood during exercise.
A total of 201 metabolites were measured in blood samples taken from 1,154 individuals. 24 of the metabolites were linked to favorable or inadequate diet and fitness, even after the same factors taken into account in the previous analyzes had been corrected.
The metabolite data indicates that healthy eating is linked to healthier metabolic health, which may be why it translates into better fitness.
Since this was an observational study, it cannot be concluded that healthy eating leads to better fitness, and the possibility of an inverse association, ie that fit people choose to eat a healthy diet, cannot be ruled out.
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