Live Longer With The Right Foods
A new breakthrough study has found that eating legumes, nuts, and whole grains—and less red meat—can add at least a decade to your life. What’s more, the study projects men have a longer life expectancy than women if they switch their dietary habits.
The study created a model to estimate the effect replacing a “typical Western diet” with an “optimal plant-based diet” has on the life expectancy of men and women.
For example, a woman in the United States who starts eating an “optimal diet” at age 20 could increase her life expectancy by just over 10 years while a 20-year-old man could increase his life expectancy by 13 years, according to a study published in the journal, PLOS Medicine, in February.
The longevity benefits of an optimal diet are not just for the young. Researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway also discovered that a 60-year-old woman who starts eating a healthy diet could increase her life expectancy by eight years and a man of the same age could increase his life expectancy by nearly nine years. The study showed that 80-year-old men and women would both gain 3.4 years.
The study described a “typical Western diet” as including some fruits and vegetables, sugary drinks, refined grains, red meats, and processed meats. The “optimal diet” involves a higher intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and fish, and lower consumption of red meat, processed meats, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened beverages. The study described a “feasibility approach diet” as a diet that met somewhere in the middle between a typical Western diet and an optimal diet.
“Understanding the relative health potential of different food groups could enable people to make feasible and significant health gains,” the study’s authors wrote.
To create the model, the investigative team used existing meta-analyses and data from the Global Burden of Disease, a comprehensive database containing information on premature deaths and disabilities caused by over 350 diseases and injuries in 195 countries and territories from 1990 to 2019.
Benefits of Longevity-Based Foods
According to the study, the largest gains would be made by eating specific plant-based foods, such as:
Legumes include beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), and peanuts. Dr. Amy Gorin, a plant-based registered dietitian nutritionist in the New York area, says legumes provide fiber and protein, “a combination that helps you feel fuller for longer.” What’s more, high fiber along with resistant starch helps keep blood sugar levels low. Legumes are low in fat, do not have cholesterol, and have powerful antioxidants called, “polyphenols.”
Nuts are rich in protein and healthy fats. Some of the most commonly consumed nuts are almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts, and cashews. Nuts contain fiber, which is known to reduce cholesterol and the risk of coronary heart disease.
Of all the nuts, almonds contain more dietary fiber than any other tree nut, according to Dr. Caroline West Passerrello, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Almonds have 3.5 grams of fiber per ounce, compared to the 2.4 grams in peanuts and 0.9 grams in cashews, Passerrello said.
3. Whole grains
Whole grains have been associated with a variety of health benefits, including reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. Oatmeal, brown rice, wild rice, barley, corn, and sorghum are among the most common varieties of whole grains. Popcorn might be the most popular whole grain and the healthiest when it’s air-popped and lightly seasoned.
Whole grains are a “surprising source of protein and also offer fiber,” said Gorin, who also noted that some whole grains, like millet, contain iron. Besides protein and fiber, whole grains also contain vitamins B and E, as well as magnesium.
4. Americans Do Not Eat Enough Fruits and Vegetables
Nutrition experts have been promoting the benefits of fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods for decades. But the percentage of U.S. adults eating the number of fruits and vegetables recommended by federal guidelines is low, according to a survey published in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on January 7, 2022.
The report said only 12.3 percent of adults eat one-and-a-half to two cups of fruit each day, the amount recommended by the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In addition, only 10 percent of Americans eat two to three cups of vegetables each day, including legumes, as recommended by the guidelines.
According to the guidelines, at least half of all grains consumed should be whole-grain foods. Yet, 98 percent of Americans fall below this recommendation for whole grains and 74 percent exceed limits for refined grains.
Whole grains contain protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and “phytochemicals,” which are powerful antioxidants that have been associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases.
One way to consume the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes is to consider diets that focus on healthy plant-based foods and less red meat. The best diet that checks all the boxes is the Mediterranean diet, which is high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and beans. The Mediterranean diet was inspired by the eating habits of people who live in countries near the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean diet has been ranked as the number one diet by U.S. News and World Report five years in a row.
The authors of the latest study recommend that people start making healthier food choices now—the sooner, the better.
“A sustained dietary change may give substantial health gains for people of all ages both for optimized and feasible changes,” the study authors wrote. “Gains are predicted to be larger the earlier the dietary changes are initiated in life.”