Estimating the effect of nutritional interventions using observational data: the American Heart Association's 2020 Dietary Goals and mortality

Am J Clin Nutr. 2021 Aug 2;114(2):690-703. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqab100.


Background: Because randomized trials of sustained dietary changes are sometimes impractical for long-term outcomes, the explicit emulation of a (hypothetical) target trial using observational data may be an important tool for nutritional epidemiology.

Objectives: We describe a methodological approach that aims to emulate a target trial of dietary interventions sustained over many years using data from observational cohort studies.

Methods: We estimated the 20-y risk of all-cause mortality under the sustained implementation of the food-based goals of the American Heart Association (AHA) 2020 using data from 3 prospective observational studies of US men [Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS)] and women [Nurses' Health Study (NHS) and Nurses' Health Study II (NHS II)]. We applied the parametric g-formula to estimate the 20-y mortality risk under a dietary intervention and under no dietary intervention.

Results: There were 165,411 participants who met the eligibility criteria. The mean age at baseline was 57.4 y (range, 43-82 y) in the HPFS, 52.4 y (range, 39-66 y) in the NHS, and 40.2 y (range, 30-50 y) in the NHS II. During 20 y of follow-up, 13,241 participants died. The estimated 20-y mortality risks under a dietary intervention versus no intervention were 21.9% compared with 25.8%, respectively, in the HPFS (risk difference, -3.9%; 95% CI: -4.9% to -3.2%); 10.0% compared with 12.6%, respectively, in the NHS (risk difference, -2.6%; 95% CI: -3.1% to -1.8%); and 2.1% compared with 2.5%, respectively, in the NHS II (risk difference, -0.35%; 95% CI: -0.56% to -0.09%). The corresponding risk ratios were 0.85 (95% CI: 0.81-0.88) in the HPFS, 0.79 (95% CI: 0.75-0.85) in the NHS, and 0.86 (95% CI: 0.78-0.96) in the NHS II.

Conclusions: We estimated that adherence to the food-based AHA 2020 Dietary Goals starting in midlife may reduce the 20-y risk of mortality.

Keywords: American Heart Association 2020 Dietary Goals; g-formula; mortality; nutritional epidemiology; target trial.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • American Heart Association*
  • Diet*
  • Female
  • Heart Diseases / mortality*
  • Heart Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mortality / trends*
  • Nutrition Policy*
  • Nutritional Status*
  • United States