What foods to eat to live longer: a healthy diet increases life expectancy by more than a decade

Replacing the diet with ultra-processed products, soft drinks and red and processed meats for a healthier diet helps to gain more years of life (Getty)
Replacing the diet with ultra-processed products, soft drinks and red and processed meats for a healthier diet helps to gain more years of life (Getty)

“You have to eat to live, not live to eat”, maintained Cicero, writer, orator and Roman politician in Antiquity. Today it is known that the food consumed every day is essential for health, and it is estimated that, worldwide, risk factors related to poor diet cause 11 million deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life years per year.

A team of scientific researchers from Norway found that a young adult could add more than a decade to his life expectancy if he were to change his diet from the typical western one – with junk food – to an optimized diet that includes more legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, and beans), whole grains and nuts, and less red and processed meat.

The work was carried out by scientists from the Department of Global Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Bergen in Norway. Before doing so, they took into account previous research related to the impact of diet quality on life expectancy.

For example, the Global Burden of Disease, Injury, and Risk Factors study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in the United States provides summary measures of population health that are relevant when comparing health systems. but does not estimate the impact of alterations in the composition of the food groups and their benefits for individual health.

An optimized diet should include more legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, and beans), whole grains, and nuts (Photo: Franco Fafasuli)
An optimized diet should include more legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, and beans), whole grains, and nuts (Photo: Franco Fafasuli)

The EAT commission organized by the magazine The Lancet introduced a planetary diet recently. But it offers limited information on the health impact of other diets, and few people are able to adhere to strict health-maximizing approaches. So, the Norwegian researchers felt there was a big question to answer: With what eating plan do you gain more years of life?

In the study they published, the Norwegian scientists wrote: “Our modeling methodology using meta-analysis, data from the Global Burden of Disease study and Life table methodology showed that life expectancy gains from long-term changes from typical Western diets to optimization diets could translate to more than a decade for young adults.”

The biggest gains in life years would come from eating more legumes, whole grains and nuts, and less red and processed meat. For older people, the gains would be minor but substantial. Even viability approximation feeding indicates an increase in life expectancy by 7% or more for both sexes in all age groups.

The greatest gains would be obtained by eating more legumes (2.2 years in women and 2.5 in men), more whole grains (2 years in women and 2.3 in men), more nuts (1.7 years in women and 2 in men), less red meat (1.6 years in women and 1.9 in men) and less processed meat (1.6 years in women and 1.9 in men).

At age 60, adopting a healthy diet could gain 8 years for women and 8.8 years for men, and 80-year-olds could gain 3.4 years, according to the scientists.

They took the research to a concrete tool. They developed the online calculator Food4HealthyLife that allows instant estimation of the effect on life expectancy after a series of changes in daily diet. “Knowing the relative health potential of different food groups could allow people to derive viable and significant health benefits,” they said.

To change eating habits “it is not necessary to go from nothing to everything"according to the doctor specialized in nutrition Marianela Ackermann / Getty)
To make the change in eating habits “it is not necessary to go from nothing to everything”, according to the doctor specialized in nutrition Marianela Ackermann / Getty)

They also consider that the “Food4HealthyLife” calculator could be a useful tool for clinicians, policy makers and the general public to understand the health impact of food choices. The Norwegian study was published in the journal PLOS Medicine. The study was led by scientist Lars Fadnes.

After reading the work of scientists, medical specialist Marianela Ackermann, member of the Obesity group of the Argentine Nutrition Society, commented: “It must be taken into account that human health depends on two large variables: genetic and acquired factors, which include lifestyle and environment around us. Today the only thing we can change are acquired factors, and more precisely our lifestyle: how we eat, how much we move and how we manage our emotions and stress”.

The results of the study in Norway – stated Dr. Ackermann – “provide information on the extent to which positive changes in food choices have an impact on prolonging our lives”. For specialist Ackermann, “it is not necessary to go from nothing to everything. In other words, it is not useful to totally change eating habits from one day to the next because they are not sustained over time. What is best is to start with moderate changes to follow a “doable” diet. For example, you can start by reducing the consumption of cookies and increasing that of nuts or reducing that of processed meats and increasing that of legumes, they already bring benefits.

Also Dr. Ackermann stressed that it is never too late to adopt a good diet. “The sooner the better to adopt a better diet, with more legumes, grains and nuts, but it is never too late. The benefits were seen at any age. There is also evidence that if the changes begin at age 60, substantial benefits are obtained in life expectancy”, he highlighted.

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