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To evaluate the association between long-term dietary quality, measured by the 2010 Alternative Healthy Eating Index, and risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in women.We prospectively followed 76 597 women in the Nurses' Health Study aged 30–55 years and 93 392 women in the Nurses' Health Study II aged 25–42 years at baseline and free from RA or other connective tissue diseases. The lifestyle, environmental exposure and anthropometric information were collected at baseline and updated biennially. Cumulative follow-up rates were more than 90% for both cohorts. The primary outcome was RA alone with two subtypes of the disease: seropositive and seronegative RA.During 3 678 104 person-years, 1007 RA cases were confirmed. In the multivariable-adjusted model, long-term adherence to healthy eating patterns was marginally associated with reduced RA risk. To assess potential effect modification by age at diagnosis, we stratified by age. Among women aged ≤55 years, better quality diet was associated with lower RA risk (HRQ4 vs Q1: 0.67; 95% CI 0.51 to 0.88; p trend: 0.002), but no significant association was found for women aged >55 years (p interaction: 0.005). When stratifying by serostatus, the inverse association among those aged ≤55 years was strongest for seropositive RA (HRQ4 vs Q1: 0.60; 95% CI 0.42 to 0.86; p trend: 0.003).A healthier diet was associated with a reduced risk of RA occurring at 55 years of age or younger, particularly seropositive RA.