Can a healthy diet prolong your lifespan? According to recent research, this is most likely the case. We’ve known for years that diets high in healthy fats (like olive oil and nuts), vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants (from foods like vegetables, fruits, and herbs aromatic) naturally prolong life. This is the same type of diet found in people living in the “blue zones”, who are most likely to live over 100 years.
How many years can healthy eating add to your life?
A recent study published in PLOS Medicine and conducted by Norwegian researchers looked at dietary change to extend lifespan. The study found that a nutrient-dense diet, similar to the “Mediterranean diet” or the Blue Zone diet, could extend life by 8 to 13 years, depending on age.
The findings are based on a model the researchers created using data from the Global Burden of Disease Study, which included thousands of participants from 204 countries. The study’s model was used to estimate what would happen to a person’s body and lifespan if they switched from a highly processed “standard Western diet” to a healthier diet that focused on whole foods.
The types of dietary changes that were found to have the greatest impact on longevity included decreasing consumption of red meat, ultra-processed foods, and sugary foods, in favor of eating more vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, fish and nuts.
Here are some key findings about diets that extend people’s lives, according to the study results:
– The earlier a person adopts a healthy diet, the better. For example, if a woman began to follow an “optimal” nutrient-dense diet around age 20, she could potentially add about 10 years to her life.
– Men seem to benefit even more from giving up junk food and eating better. The study found that if a man started eating optimally at age 20, he could add around 13 years to his lifespan.
– If young adults ate better, but not optimally, they could still live about six to seven years longer.
– Although it is ideal to have a balanced and unprocessed diet throughout your life, it is never too late to start. The study results suggest that even if older adults did not start following a Mediterranean diet until around age 60, they could still increase their life expectancy by eight to nine years.
– Even people in their 80s who started eating less meat and more plant protein and other nutritious foods could benefit from an increase in life expectancy of more than three years.
What it means
Not only can a healthier diet promote longevity, it can also improve the quality of your life by reducing the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes and dementia. If you’re currently following a standard western diet, chances are your diet isn’t optimal and you can afford to make some changes.
A concrete example: only about 10% of Western adults consume the recommended daily amount of fresh fruits and vegetables (two to three servings of each).
Although beans/legumes are highly recommended due to their benefits for gut health, heart health, and weight management, many people do not consume any type of bean on a regular basis. Another problem is that 95% of Westerners fail to meet the goal of eating enough whole grains versus refined grains. It is recommended that at least half of your cereal be 100% whole grain, which is higher in fiber and other essential nutrients.
Meat consumption in Western countries is another problem.
Countries with the highest standard of living tend to consume the most meat, but eating a lot of meat (especially red meat and processed meat) is linked to health problems such as type 1 diabetes. 2, coronary heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers, including colorectal cancer.
Tips for a longevity diet
What should I eat to prolong my life? If you want to add eight to twelve years to your life, follow a predominantly Mediterranean-inspired diet. The sooner you do this, the better for your health, including in old age.
Here are some tips for eating in a way that will extend your lifespan:
– Use good quality olive oil as your main cooking oil, in addition to eating oily fish, nuts and seeds. Limit refined vegetable oils, most butters and margarine. Avoid foods containing hydrogenated and trans fats.
– Fill up on foods high in antioxidants, such as fresh vegetables, leafy greens, peppers, onions, garlic, berries, herbs and spices.
– Consume plenty of fibre, especially in vegetables, fruits, 100% whole grains, legumes and nuts.
– Limit your intake of red meat and processed meats, especially conventional beef, hot dogs, salami, cured meats and deli meats.
– Add more plant-based proteins to your meals, such as legumes (peas, chickpeas and lentils), whole grains (quinoa, oats and buckwheat), nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, pecans, sunflower seeds and pumpkin, pistachios).
– Avoid foods with added sugar, such as desserts, cereals, sugary dairy products and sodas. Instead, eat fruit, a little raw honey or dark chocolate to satisfy your sweet tooth.
– Consume dairy products in moderation, especially if they cause you digestive problems. Opt for unsweetened yogurts and kefir, as well as aged cheeses in small batches, to get the most benefits.
Estimating impact of food choices on life expectancy: A modeling study