If making a few changes to what’s on your plate could increase your lifespan by 13 years, would you do it?
A recent study created a template to predict a person’s longevity if they swapped a traditional “Western diet” of processed foods and red meat with an “optimized diet” of more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts ,and legumes (along with reduced intake of processed and red meats).
If young adults started eating healthier at the age of 20, a woman could add a little over 10 years to her life, while a man could add 13 more years to his lifespan. The study was published recently in the journal PLOS Medicine.
Eating a healthier diet may also benefit the lives of older adults. Even at age 60, a woman could add eight years to her life and men could add an additional nine years to theirs.
Want more? A plant-forward eating style could add an extra three and a half years to 80-year-old men and women's lives, just thanks to those dietary changes.
Diet and Lifestyle as Medicine
According to Dr. David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine and nutrition, "The notion that improving diet quality would reduce the risk of chronic disease and premature death is long established, and it only stands to reason that less chronic disease and premature death means more life expectancy."
Katz, the president and founder of the nonprofit True Health Initiative, a global coalition of experts focused on evidence-based lifestyle medicine, has several studies on using food as preventive medicine.
"What they define as an 'optimal' diet is not quite optimal; it's just a whole lot better than 'typical,'" Katz said, adding that he felt diet could be "further improved, conferring even greater benefits."
A “much improved” diet still included a lot of meat and dairy, according to Katz. When his team objectively scores quality of diet, these foods are at low levels in the top tier.
The Global Burden of Disease
To model the potential effect of a person’s diet change, researchers from Norway utilized current meta-analysis and data from the Global Burden of Disease study. This is a database that follows 286 causes of death, 369 injuries and diseases, and 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories globally.
The biggest gains in increasing lifespan were seen from consumption of more legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils, whole grains that include the seed of the plant, and nuts like almonds, pecans, pistachios and walnuts.
While it sounds easy to add more plants and grains to your diet, statistics indicate otherwise. New data from the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that few Americans eat adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables daily.
Where Americans are Struggling
According to the CDC, just 12% of adults eat 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruit daily and only 10% of Americans eat 2 to 3 cups of vegetables daily, which includes legumes.
Over 95% of Americans haven’t been meeting whole grain consumption goals either. About half of grain intake should be whole grains, yet processed grains are more likely to be eaten. Processed grains often lack the actual bran and other parts of the grain, making them low in nutrients such as fiber.
Over 50% of Americans don’t consume 5 grams (roughly a teaspoon) of the recommended nuts and seeds daily.
Legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds all provide protein as well as healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants. and phytochemicals. These are linked to a reduced risk of chronic illnesses.
Consuming less red and processed meats like bacon, sausage, and deli meats was also associated with a longer lifespan, which makes sense. These types of foods are linked with coronary heart disease and cancer of the bowel.
"There's substantial evidence that processed meat can cause bowel cancer -- so much so that the World Health Organization has classified it as carcinogenic since 2015," Oxford University epidemiologist Tim Key, a member of the UK Department of Health's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, told CNN in a prior interview.
By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
Want to know how to put this advice into action? Check out the post Eat More Plants and Less Meat: Here's How.
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.