The sooner you start, the better. Following a healthy diet from a young age leads to further gains in life expectancy. But even people who wait until middle age or beyond to improve their eating habits can still add years to their lives.
Research is empowering for several reasons. It shows that you don’t necessarily have to transform your diet to reap benefits. Even small changes, like adding a handful of nuts to your daily diet for a midday snack and cutting back on processed meats like ham and sausage, can add years to your life. And it suggests that even if you’re 60 or older, making these relatively small changes to your diet could still reap big benefits.
A healthy eating boost at any age
In a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists followed approximately 74,000 people between the ages of 30 and 75 for more than two decades. During that time, they analyzed their diets and lifestyle habits and tracked changes in what they ate. The researchers used several scoring systems to assess the quality of their diets, including the Alternative Healthy Eating Index, which was developed by nutrition experts at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health.
The index gives low scores to unhealthy foods and higher scores to healthier foods. Foods that received high scores include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, and foods high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, avocados, and olive oil . Some of the unhealthy foods that received the lowest scores were things like red and processed meats and foods that are high in sodium and added sugars, such as sugary drinks, pizza, chips and other junk foods.
What are ultra-processed foods? What should I eat instead?
The more nutritious food people ate and the less junk food they consumed, the higher their diet scores. The researchers found that people who had consistently high diet scores were up to 14 percent less likely to die from any cause during the study period compared to people who had consistently poor diets.
But perhaps most importantly, people who improved their eating habits saw big benefits. The researchers found that people who increased their diet scores by just 20 percent during the study had at least an 8 percent reduction in mortality over the study period and a 7 to 15 percent reduction in their probability of dying from heart disease, specifically. Achieving a 20 percent boost in your diet score could be as simple as replacing the sugary drinks in your diet with sparkling water and eating at least a handful of nuts or a serving of beans or lentils a day, Mercedes Sotos said. -Pieto, lead author of The Study.
He noted that most of the study participants were over 60 years old, showing that it is never too late to benefit from an improvement in your eating habits. The reductions in mortality among people who improved their eating habits were largely due to a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, which is strongly influenced by diet. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide.
Simply add nuts, grains, beans and peas
Sotos-Pieto noted that eating a more nutritious diet by making small, gradual improvements in your food choices over time can help you lose weight and lower your cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation levels, all of which can improve your cardiovascular health and reduce the chance of having a heart attack or stroke.
“You don’t need to drastically change your lifestyle,” said Sotos-Pieto, an assistant professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid and an adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Choose small goals that you can achieve and maintain over time.”
In another study published earlier this year in PLOS Medicine, scientists analyzed a large body of data on the impact that different foods have on the risk of premature death. They then used that data, along with other research on death and chronic disease rates, to estimate how changes in a person’s diet might influence their life expectancy at different ages.
The researchers found that a 20-year-old who switched from the typical Western diet to an optimal Mediterranean-style diet (and followed it) could add an average of 11 to 13 years to his or her life expectancy. But even older people could benefit: A 60-year-old who made this switch could increase their life expectancy by as much as nine years, and an 80-year-old could gain about three and a half years.
The study found that the biggest gains in life expectancy came from eating more legumes such as beans, peas, lentils and peanuts. If reviewing your diet sounds like a daunting task, start small by adding a few particularly important foods to your diet.
- Eat a handful of nuts every day.
- Add a few servings of whole grains to your diet. Switch to brown rice instead of white rice.
- Eat at least one cup of beans, lentils, or peas a day. Add chickpeas to a salad; have a burrito bowl with black or pinto beans.
- Add nut butters (peanut butter or almond butter) to toast, oatmeal, or yogurt for breakfast.
The huge health benefits you get from eating more legumes, nuts and whole grains come from their metabolic profile, said Lars Fadnes, lead author of the PLOS Medicine study and a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway. These foods are nutrient dense and contain large amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Legumes, for example, are high in protein and contain several B vitamins, iron, copper, magnesium, manganese, zinc and phosphorous, he said. These foods have also been shown in clinical trials to reduce inflammation and improve cholesterol levels and other metabolic markers that affect your lifespan.
Fadnes emphasized that if you eat a lot of junk food, the sooner you change your eating habits, the better. Even for people who are overweight, older and in poor metabolic health, the benefits they can get from eating more nutritious foods, she said, “are likely to be substantial.”
Sign up for the Well+Being newsletter, your source for expert advice and simple tips to help you live well every day.
Do you have any questions about healthy eating? Email EatingLab@washpost.com and we may answer your question in a future column.
#Sodas #chips #hot #dogs #years #life