Does Eating Healthy Make You Live Longer?

Thinking of going green? Healthy food could add years to your life—at any age! A team of researchers from Norway have published a fascinating modeling study in PLOS Medicine that forecasts improved life expectancy by increasing your intake of vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, while cutting back on processed meat and sugar sweetened beverages.

Based on the model, at age 20 you could add more than a decade to your life expectancy by switching over from the traditional Western diet—one that’s high in processed foods, sugars and red meat—to instead eat what the researchers defined as an “optimal” healthy diet.

If never indulging in junk food seems impractical, good news: the researchers found that scaling back the processed foods but not cutting them out entirely (defined by the study as a “feasible” healthy diet) still could add roughly 7 years to the life of a 20-year-old.

What about people past middle age who’ve had a lifelong habit of eating junk food? According to the model, switching to a feasible and optimal health diet at age 60 could add up to about 5 and 9 years to life expectancy, respectively.

“Optimal” healthy diet vs. “feasible” healthy diet

So, what’s the difference between an optimal healthy diet and a feasible healthy diet?

The optimal healthy diet used in this study is Mediterranean-style, with a high intake of vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, with little-to-no dietary intake of processed meat and sugar sweetened beverages.

The feasible diet meets in the middle between the typical Western diet and the optimal healthy diet.

Predicting your life expectancy

Wondering how long you’re predicted to live, based on your current diet? You can enter your age at the Food for Healthy Life website and find out your expected life expectancy eating a Western diet, and then see how many years you’ll gain if you change to an optimal healthy diet and a feasible healthy diet.

These predictions are based on three large meta-analyses which included a plethora of studies on diet and life expectancy.

How does healthy eating help you live longer?

Most people have heard the proverbial saying “you are what you eat,” but what does this mean exactly? It’s crazy to think about: everything you are indeed comes from what is put into the body! And that includes whether you’re someone who lives longer…or is more likely to face an early death.

Most cells in the body do not last very long and constantly need to be replaced. (For example, skin cells are replaced approximately every four weeks and stomach epithelial cells typically only last around five days.) Think of your body as a cell manufacturing facility; your job is to make sure that you supply it with high-quality raw materials (nutrients) that are needed to manufacture healthy cells.

Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other good-for-you foods are high-quality materials, but those hyper-palatable, high-sugar foods you may be craving are not doing you any favors in the long run.

Beyond that, healthy eating is associated with many other benefits, ranging from a strong immune system to healthier blood pressure, to a lower risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases related to dietary intake.

And certainly, a better diet quality is linked to an easier time maintaining a healthy weight.

Foods to live longer

Research on longevity and nutrition is always ongoing. But based on current data, we have at least a pretty good idea of what food groups may predict longevity success.

Make these life-extending foods a regular part of your menu:

  • Vegetables:

    Leafy greens, carrots, sweet potato, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale

  • Whole grains:

    Quinoa, brown rice, oats, and buckwheat

  • Legumes:

    Chickpeas, nuts, soybeans, lentils, peanuts, and pinto beans (these plant foods are both fiber-rich and good sources of protein)

  • White meats:

    Salmon, mahi-mahi, chicken, and turkey

  • Fruits:

    Avocados, apples, pomegranate, and antioxidant-rich berries such as blueberries and strawberries are all great options.

  • Nuts:

    Walnuts, Brazilian, and cashew nuts

  • Other:

    Moderate red wine and green tea

Foods to limit or avoid

Here’s a hard truth: the people who say, “Life is too short not to eat dessert” may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Regularly eating large portions of sweets, fast food and other foods on the list below (along with other lifestyle factors) may indeed decrease longevity, largely because these foods are associated with heart disease, the number one killer in the United States. So it’s important to resist the temptation to eat unhealthy foods too frequently, and to get in the habit of choosing foods that enhance your health, rather than threaten it!

Of course, it’s okay to treat yourself occasionally—but subsisting on the foods listed below could come with a price down the road:

  • Ultra-processed foods:

    Avoid. Some of the unhealthiest foods are the ultra-processed foods, which tend to be high in added sugar, salt, oil, and unhealthy fats—think soft drinks, packaged snacks, pre-prepared frozen dishes, cereals, and ice cream. Ultra-processed foods are widely considered to be “industrial products” as they usually are so altered that they have little to no intact whole foods.
    Startlingly, ultra-processed foods accounts for more than 60% of dietary energy in the U.S. In a meta-analysis of observational studies, evaluating approximately 183,500 participants followed for a period ranging from 3.5 to 19 years, the highest intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with increased risk of depression, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality.

  • Lesser processed foods:

    Limit. This category includes canned foods, cheeses, and freshly made bread.

  • Foods cooked at very high-heat:

    Avoid. The ingredients in a dish are not the only thing that’s important; certain cooking methods can make an otherwise wholesome meal unhealthy. That’s because foods cooked at very high heat create the formation of dangerous compounds, most notably advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are formed after glucose molecules bind to proteins and cause cross-linking between other proteins. AGEs are associated with premature aging and an increased risk for many chronic diseases.
    High heat cooking methods to avoid or limit are frying, grilling, broiling, baking, and searing. The occasional dish using these cooking methods is okay, but try more often to cook foods by poaching, steaming, stewing, and boiling, as these methods produce less toxic AGEs. If you are going to cook at high heat, use a lower temperature and avoid charring.

  • Red meat:

    Limit or avoid. Red meats include beef, pork, or lamb. They might be healthy if consumed unprocessed, cooked at low temperatures, and in moderation, however evidence suggests that red meat in general may pose health consequences, most notably colon cancer. According to a branch of the WHO called the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer): eating red meat regularly is probably carcinogenic and eating processed meat regularly is carcinogenic.
    Why is red meat dangerous? For one thing, it can create high amounts of a compound called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), and high levels of TMAO have been associated with multiple diseases, including cardiovascular diseases and cancers of the stomach and colon. However, more research is needed to understand TMAO’s possible role in disease progression.

Which are the healthier diets?

If you want to live a longer life, why not steal a page from the playbook of people who live in the “blue zones,” which are areas of the world containing the highest lived populations? Two of these blue zones are located within the Mediterranean and Japan, where people eat heart-healthy, nutrient-dense foods.

Here’s what they eat:

  • Mediterranean diet: This is a largely plant-based diet, characterized by a high intake of vegetables, legumes, nuts, and olive oil and a low intake of meat, sugar, and processed foods. You can drink red wine in moderation. Unlike most other diets, the Mediterranean diet doesn’t cut out anything; it simply limits certain foods and puts a greater emphasis on others, which is why many people refer to it as the “Mediterranean plan” or lifestyle, rather than a diet.
  • Japanese diet: This approach has an even lower intake of meat and a greater intake on vegetables, with emphasis on kelp and seaweed. People who live in Okinawa, the blue zone in Japan, also avoid most legumes (other than soybeans) and most fruit.

Treat your body well, and it will treat you well. Certainly, there’s no guarantee against staying disease-free, but choosing foods that are richer in nutrients will put you on the right track to a long, healthy life.

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