New Research Suggests That Eating Better Could Add A Decade Or More To Your Life

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This shouldn’t really come as a huge surprise, but new research has found that when you consume an optimal diet, scientists have found that they can quantify how many more years you could possibly add to your life.

Most people are aware that eating fruits, veggies, and whole grains – while limiting our consumption of red meat and processed foods – will probably give us better health overall. Moreover, it could even lessen the risks of developing chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

But what exactly do scientists mean when they use the term “better health”? Well, a new study which was published in PLoS Medicine attempts to best quantify the benefits by ‘using a formula to calculate how many more years you could live by eating an “optimal” instead of the standard Western diet.’

The researchers developed a model in which it explained that ‘if a 20-year old male began eating an optimized diet that emphasized fruits, veggies, and plant-based proteins, he could add as much as 13 extra years to his life, and a female of the same age could tack on an extra 10 years.’

As explained in a release by lead author and professor of global public health and primary care at the University of Bergen in Norway,  Lars Thore Fadnes, PhD, “Research until now has shown health benefits associated with separate food groups or specific diet patterns but given limited information on the health impact of other diet changes. Our modeling methodology has bridged this gap.”


The Global Cost of Unhealthy Eating: 11 Million Deaths Per Year

Former research explains that the impact of one’s diet on their life span can be seen on a global scale. According to an April 2019 study published in The Lancet, researchers found that an estimated 11 million deaths and 255 million life-years were attributed to unhealthy food intake. Researchers also highlighted that most of the diets showed high sodium intake and low intake of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables were major contributors to these shortened lifespans and major health crisis.

Another study was published in the European Heart Journal Quality Care Clinical Outcomes in October of 2020 which concluded that ‘two-thirds of heart disease-related deaths worldwide can be linked to food choices.’ Moreover, the study authors even estimated that six million deaths could have also been avoided if those that died consumed better diets.


Just 1 in 10 Americans Eat the Recommended Amount of Vegetables

In order to best estimate the impact of one’s diet on a person’s lifespan, the researchers used findings from an existing meta-analyses alongside data from the Global Burden Disease study. This study quantifies health loss from hundreds of diseases, risk factors, and injuries.

From here, the researchers created three potential diet options, which are optimal, feasible, and a typical Western diet. They explain that the optimal diet had a significantly higher intake than a typical diet of such foods like whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, fish, and also included a handful of nuts, while also lessening the intake of red and processed meats, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

The typical Western diet, on the other hand, was based on consumption data from the United States and Europe, which contains a higher amount of added sugars, red meat, processed foods, and much less fruit and vegetables.

The feasibility approach diet was considered a midpoint between an optimal diet and a typical western diet.

Data published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2022 of their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report showed that ‘only about 1 in 8 adults consume the recommended 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit each day, and only 1 in 10 eat the recommended 2 to 3 cups of vegetables each day, including legumes.

The average American diet also lacks the appropriate amount of whole grain consumption, eating less than the one daily serving it recommends, as shared by the Whole Grains Council. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that ‘adults eat at least half their grains as whole grains,’ which is at least 3 to 5 servings.’


Never Too Late to Start Healthy Eating Patterns

While most young people may be able to make the most gains in their life-years, those who are middle-aged or older adults may possibly add more years to their lives by improving their diets, explain the authors.

Dr. Fadnes shares, “For example, an average 40-year-old woman from the United States or Europe who has eaten a typical Western diet is likely to gain around 10 years if optimizing diet from that age. Even a quite feasible diet modification is estimated to translate into gains of around 6 life years.”

He adds that even those in their seventies could make small but rather substantial gains if they do the same.

Susan Strom, RD, from the UNC Health in Chapel Hill, North Carolina who was not part of the study said that these findings are ‘logical in a broad sense.’

She says, “It stands to reason that if you eat better, you will be healthier. If you’re healthier, your risk for developing chronic diseases goes down.”

In addition, Strom also says that by avoiding chronic diseases, you increase your chances of both an improvement in the quality and the quantity of your life.


How Whole Grains, Nuts, and Legumes Help Prolong Your Life

The researchers also found that those that eat more legumes, nuts, whole grains and less red and processed meat can help improve their life longevity.

Dr. Fadnes explains, “Further gains are also associated with increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables, and fish, while reducing the intake of sugar-sweetened drinks, eggs, and refined grains.” And this isn’t the first time that studies have claimed what the positive health benefits of legumes are either.

But the question remains, what exactly are these benefits? Legumes are plants that grow in pods, including peanuts, green beans, fresh peas, and soybeans. Pulses are also a part of the legume family. If you’ve never heard of them, they’re dry, edible seeds within the pods, which means that beans, chickpeas, and lentils are all pulses. These are incredibly high in both soluble and insoluble fiber, complex carbohydrates, and protein.

John Sievenpiper, MD, PhD, who is also an associate professor in the department of nutrition studies at the University of Toronto shared that legumes have been linked to improved health measures when incorporated in diets like the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.


Here’s How Plant-Based Diets May Help Reduce Cardiometabolic Risk Factors

As explained in an interview with researcher and clinical fellow at the Harvard Medical School in Boston, Frank Qian, MD, a number of previous observational studies, summary studies, and randomized controlled trials have shown positive results in the reduction of cardiometabolic risk factors and lowered risk of health conditions such as strokes and heart attacks when substituting plant-sources of protein or fat for animal sources.

Dr. Qian explains, “When you eat a plant-based diet, it’s full of hundreds of beneficial compounds that interact through countless pathways to influence the body’s weight homeostasis, glucose-insulin response, inflammation and oxidative stress, and gut microbiome composition and function.”

He also notes that some of the plant-based diet benefits could be because of its effect on weight control. “Most of the foods that comprise a plant-based diet have been shown in prior observational and interventional studies to mediate weight loss or prevent long-term weight gain,” he adds.


How Small Changes to Your Diet Can Make a Huge Difference to Your Health

In order to found out how eating an optimal diet or “feasible” diet could possibly extend your life, the research authors decided to make their online calculator available to the public. While Strom agrees that changing your dietary patterns isn’t always easy, in fact it can be very hard. But it also doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing.’

She says, “You don’t have to automatically go 100 percent to the ‘optimal diet’ in order to experience the benefits.”

She also suggests that those that want to make changes take a serious look at the foods and drinks they normally consume within a day, then just changing one thing first. Her suggestion is “Maybe it’s to stop drinking soda or making sure you eat at least one fruit and one vegetable every day.”

Another way to do this is to start cooking your meals at home more often than getting takeout. “The important thing is to make changes you can stick with long term in order to make them stick. Keep adding in new goals for yourself with regards to foods and activity in order to not only improve the quantity of your life, but the quality of your life as well,” she says.