Making certain dietary changes could add up to 10 years to your life, new study finds

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  • Making certain changes to your diet may significantly affect your lifespan.
  • This is according to a newly published study, where the researchers analysed several previous studies.
  • However, it is important to remember that several other factors influence longevity, such as genetics and health issues.

Certain habits can literally add years to your life, and according to a new comprehensive study, it all starts on your plate.

Based on the results, a diet rich in legumes (peas, lentils, soybeans), whole grains (oats, corn, brown rice), and nuts – with a lower red and processed meat intake – can add up to 10 years to a young adult’s life, and six to seven years in middle-aged adults, if they start early enough.

Best of all, the study comes with a free, interactive online calculator called Food4HealthyLife that you can use to estimate the value of a range of dietary changes to your life expectancy.

The findings are reported in Plos Medicine. The researchers gathered data from multiple studies on diet and longevity. They also included data from the Global Burden of Disease study, a detailed study looking at the population health of several countries.

'Health gains for people of all ages'

Explaining their findings, they wrote: “A sustained dietary change may give substantial health gains for people of all ages for optimised and feasible changes. Gains are predicted to be larger the earlier the dietary changes are initiated in life.”

The Food4HealthyLife calculator, they added, could be useful for clinicians, policy makers, and the general public to understand the health impact of dietary choices.

Of course, several factors influence one’s life expectancy, and diet is just one of them. It should, therefore, be borne in mind that the predictions only represent a potential impact. 

More nuts, less red meat

One of the reasons for the the study is the fact that dietary risk factors are estimated to cause a staggering 11 million deaths annually all over the world.

When combining all the data, the team analysed how life expectancy altered when there were prolonged changes from typical Western diets to optimal diets. They considered changes in the intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, refined grains, nuts, legumes, fish, eggs, dairy, red meat, processed meat, and sugary drinks.

For older people, the gains would be “smaller but substantial”, they noted.

Overall, the scientists concluded that a sustained change from a typical Western diet to the optimal diet from age 20 years would increase life expectancy by more than a decade for both women (10.7 years) and men (13 years). 

The largest gains, they found, would be made by eating more legumes, whole grains, and nuts, combined with less red and processed meat.

Lead author, professor Lars Thore Fadnes from the University of Bergen in Norway, told Medical News Today that according to research there are health benefits associated with specific food groups or diet patterns. He, however, added: “... But [there has been] limited information on the health impact of other diet changes. Our modelling methodology has bridged this gap.”

Optimal vs feasible

For some people, switching from a typical Western to an optimised diet might be a drastic approach. Instead, the researchers proposed a better approach where small steps can be taken to eating healthier, and where the two diets meet halfway. They named this the “feasible diet”.

And if people changed from a Western diet to a feasibility approach diet, the results are still impressive. The authors noted an increase in life expectancy for 20-year-olds by just over six years for women and just over seven years for men.

While the study had some limitations, the research was comprehensive and included recently-published studies.

Why does diet play such an influential role?

Researchers are still trying to understand all the elements that give diets such great power to improve our lifespan. The current study offers a hint: The optimal diet includes many foods that are high in antioxidants, explains Laura Brown, senior lecturer in Nutrition, Food, and Health Sciences, Teesside University, in an article in an article in The Conversation.

Brown explained that research in human cells indicates that these substances may slow down or prevent damage to cells, which is one cause of ageing. But further research is needed to confirm whether antioxidants that form part of our diet can have the same impact.

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READ | Sugar detox? Cutting carbs? A doctor explains why you should keep fruit on the menu

READ | What’s the difference between sugar, other natural sweeteners and artificial sweeteners?

READ | Diets: How scientists discovered that one size doesn’t fit all

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