The earlier you start, the better. Following a healthy diet from an early age leads to the greatest gains in life expectancy. But even people who wait until they reach middle age or later to improve their eating habits can still add years to their lives.
Research is empowering for several reasons. This goes to show that you don’t necessarily need to transform your diet to reap benefits. Even small changes, like adding a handful of nuts to your daily diet as a midday snack and cutting back on processed meats like ham and hot dogs, can potentially add years to your life. And it suggests that even if you’re in your 60s or older, making these relatively minor changes to your diet could still lead to major benefits.
A healthy food boost for all ages
In a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists followed about 74,000 people between the ages of 30 and 75 for more than two decades. During this time, they analyzed their diet and lifestyle habits and tracked changes in what they ate. The researchers used several scoring systems to assess the quality of their diet, including alternative healthy eating indexwhich was developed by nutrition experts from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
The index gives low scores to unhealthy foods and higher scores to healthier foods. Among the foods that received high scores were fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, and foods high in unsaturated fats and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. such as fish, avocados and olive oil. Some of the unhealthy foods that received lower scores were things like red and processed meats and foods high in sodium and added sugars, such as sugary drinks, pizza, potato chips and other junk foods.
The more nutritious foods people ate and the less junk food they ate, the higher their food scores. Researchers found that people who consistently had high dietary scores were up to 14% less likely to die from any cause during the study period compared to people who consistently had poor diets.
But perhaps most importantly: people who improved their eating habits saw great benefits. Researchers found that people who increased their dietary scores by just 20% during the study had at least an 8% reduction in mortality over the study period and a 7-15% drop in their likelihood of dying from heart disease, in particular. Achieving a 20% increase in your food score could be as simple as replacing sugary drinks in your diet with sparkling water and eating at least a handful of nuts or a serving of beans or lentils daily, a said Mercedes Sotos-Pieto, the lead author. of the study.
She pointed out that most of the study participants were over 60, demonstrating that it’s never too late to benefit from improved eating habits. The reduction in mortality among people who have improved their dietary habits is largely due to a decrease in the incidence of cardiovascular disease, which is strongly influenced by diet. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide.
Just add nuts, grains, beans and peas
Sotos-Pieto noted that eating more nutritious food by making small incremental improvements to your food choices over time can help you lose weight and lower your cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation, which can improve your cardiovascular health and reduce your likelihood of having a heart attack or stroke.
“There’s no need to drastically change your lifestyle,” said Sotos-Pieto, assistant professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid and adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Choose small goals that you can achieve and sustain over time.”
In another study published earlier this year in PLOS medicine, scientists have analyzed large amounts of data on the impact of different foods on the risk of premature death. Then they 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.
Researchers found that a 20-year-old who switched from the typical Western diet to an optimal Mediterranean-style diet (and stuck to it) could add an average of 11 to 13 years to their lifespan. But even older people could benefit: A 60-year-old who made this change could increase their life expectancy by up to nine years, and an 80-year-old could gain about three and a half years.
The study found that the greatest gains in life expectancy came from eating more legumes such as beans, peas, lentils and peanuts. If overhauling your diet seems 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; eat a burrito bowl with black or pinto beans.
- Add nut butters (peanut butter or almond butter) to toast, oatmeal or breakfast yogurt.
The outsized health benefits you get from eating more legumes, nuts and whole grains stem from their metabolic profile, said Lars Fadnes, lead author of the PLOS Medicine study and professor at the University of Bergen in Norway. . These foods are nutrient dense and contain high amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Legumes, for example, are high in protein and contain several B vitamins, iron, copper, magnesium, manganese, zinc and phosphorus, 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 pointed out 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 you can derive from eating more nutritious foods, he said, “are likely to be substantial.”
Do you have a question about healthy eating? E-mail EatingLab@washpost.com and we may answer your question in a future column.