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These Diet Changes May Add Years to Your Life, Study Finds

Researchers estimate that these simple changes could increase your life expectancy by up to 10 years.

Photo: GettyImages

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A recent study published in PLOS Medicine estimates that you could add more than a decade to your life expectancy by making simple changes to the typical Western diet, which is often laden with pre-packaged foods, refined grains, red and processed meats, fried foods, and tons of sugar.

The study pulled data from several other recent meta-analyses, each of which gather data from various studies, to summarize the effects that different food types may have on life expectancy. The overall list included fruits, vegetables, whole grains, refined grains, nuts, legumes, fish, eggs, milk/dairy, red and processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Life expectancy changes for two different approaches were estimated based on the data: an optimal approach and a feasible approach. The optimal approach, as you may have guessed, would theoretically add the most time to a person’s lifespan.

Researchers found that key changes when it comes to hitting optimal amounts include incorporating more legumes, whole grains, and nuts into your diet, as well as eating less red and processed meat, according to the study. Adding more fruits, vegetables, and fish also had a positive impact, but the typical Western diet is closer to ideal amounts of these foods, so making the first changes could be more effective.

Making and maintaining the change to an optimized diet as a young adult, say 20 years old, is estimated to add up to nearly 11 years later in life for women. However, older adults can reap similar benefits if they make and sustain these changes, with life expectancy potentially increasing up to 8 years if changed start at 60 and 3.4 years for women in their 80s. Switching to the feasible approach could add up to 6.2 years for women who start in their 20s.

Here’s the full breakdown of the optimal and feasible approaches:

Food Group Optimal Diet Daily Amount Feasible Diet Daily Amount
Whole Grains (fresh weight) 225 grams 137.5 grams
Vegetables 400 grams 325 grams
Fruits 400 grams 300 grams
Nuts 25 grams 12.5 grams
Legumes 200 grams 100 grams
Fish 200 grams 100 grams
Eggs 25 grams 37.5 grams
Milk/dairy 200 grams 250 grams
Refined grains 50 grams 100 grams
Red Meat 0 grams 50 grams
Processed Meat 0 grams 25 grams
White Meat 50 grams 62.5 grams
Sugar-sweetened Beverages 0 grams 250 grams
Added plant oils 25 grams 25 grams

“Understanding the relative health potential of different food groups could enable people to make feasible and significant health gains,” study authors wrote.

The study authors took their findings and created a tool called the Food4HealthyLife calculator that you can use to plug in your nutrition choices to see the estimated benefits. Of course, the study only provides estimates based on available data, so take your own estimate with that in mind.

“Research until now have shown health benefits associated with separate food group or specific diet patterns but given limited information on the health impact of other diet changes,” study author Lars Fadnes said in a statement. “Our modeling methodology has bridged this gap.”

Here are some ways to incorporate these food groups into your day-to-day nutrition.

Types of legumes to add to your diet:

  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Kidney beans
  • Edamame
  • Black beans
  • Soybeans
  • Pinto beans

Recipe: Edamame Avocado Dip

Using a food processor or handheld blender, purée together:

  • 1 cup shelled edamame (frozen)
  • ¼ an avocado
  • 1 teaspoon pimentos
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • ⅛ teaspoon sea salt

Types of whole grains to add to your diet:

  • Brown rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Millet
  • Buckwheat
  • Freekeh
  • Bulgur
  • Quinoa

Recipe: Buckwheat Chicken Salad

  • 1 cup buckwheat groats
  • 1 whole rotisserie cooked chicken breast, shredded (about 8 ounces)
  • 1 red bell pepper, finely diced
  • 1 cup broccoli florets, chopped
  • ¼ cup chopped red onion
  • ¼ cup fresh chopped dill
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Cook buckwheat according to package directions; set aside in large bowl to cool slightly. While buckwheat cooks, combine chicken, red pepper, broccoli and all remaining ingredients in large bowl and mix until well-combined; stir in buckwheat. Cover and refrigerate until serving.

Types of nuts to include in your diet:

  • Almonds
  • Pistachios
  • Walnuts
  • Cashews
  • Pecans
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Brazil nuts
  • Hazelnuts
  • Peanuts

Recipe: Cashew Tahini

Process together:

  • 1 (14-ounce) can drained and rinsed chickpeas
  • ⅓ cup cashew butter,
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • 2 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon cumin powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

Add warm water by the tablespoon for a creamier texture.

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