Want to Live Longer? A New Study Shows These Diet Changes Could Improve Your Lifespan by *Decades* 

By Sophia Harris
|
March 23, 2022
Fresh salad of lentils, edamame, beets, cherry tomatoes, green leaves and homemade pesto sauce

One long-suspected component of longevity has been recently proven by Norwegian researchers: The diet you choose to eat can significantly impact how long you live, and we’re talking in terms of decades. In the study, which was published in Plos Medicine, researchers observed subjects on an “optimal diet,” which was full of whole grains, legumes, fish, fruits, and vegetables, and people on a “feasible diet,” which is one that falls somewhere in between the optimal diet and the traditional Western diet, composed of lots of meat, sugar, and processed food.

Read next: 8 Delicious, Metabolism-Boosting Mediterranean Diet Recipes

The findings were remarkable: Researchers found that significantly improved health and longer lifespans were possible for people on both types of diets, both “optimal” and “feasible.” And the earlier someone started eating better foods, the more health benefits they would see — potentially even extending their lifespan by decades. 

Interestingly, the study found that the largest health improvements were made by people who ate more legumes, whole grains, and nuts, and less red meat and processed food. For older people, the health impact would be better if they stuck to the optimal diet, but even the feasible diet made noteworthy changes to their health and anticipated longevity. 

As the researchers note, over 250,000 scientific articles on nutritionally-related topics have been published since 2017. There are so many studies, resources, and opinions about what the best diet is for health — how can people cut through the noise to find the facts? 

This modeling study’s researchers were highly motivated to find an answer, once and for all, and to simplify food choices for the general public with clear research. When even doctors, clinicians, and nutritionists are on different pages about food and diet recommendations, it’s obvious that we need more straightforward resources for advising health decisions, so that’s exactly what this study and its researchers set out to do. 

The study’s researchers used meta-analysis and data from the Global Burden of Disease study, along with life methodology tables that predict life expectancy gains for those who adhere to an optimal diet. Unlike other nutritional studies, this paper is solely focused on longevity over weight loss or other diet concerns. 

The Food4HealthyLife calculator

One unusual (and really cool, in our opinion) component of this study? The researchers didn’t just provide helpful information; the study actually provides resources to use in your daily life and meal planning. The study was published with a new online food calculator, “Food4HealthyLife,” which makes it easy to understand the value of what you’re eating and to help you make better food choices every day. The calculator also makes predictions about longevity based on what you’re eating — which we’d find much more motivating than a calorie tracker.

Breaking down the “optimal” vs. “feasiblediets 

Both the study and the calculator provide the option of an “optimal” diet or a “feasible” diet. Here’s what that really means: First, let’s start with defining the typical American diet. Also known as SAD (Standard American Diet), this eating plan is a little sad compared to what we should be eating for optimal health: According to the USDA, the SAD is too low in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy oils, and lean protein. It’s also far too high in red meat, high-fat dairy products, processed and fast foods, refined carbohydrates, excessive sugar and salt, and overall calories.  

So imagine a diet that’s way too high in foods like steak, fried chicken, burgers, pizzas, ice cream, and high-fat pasta dishes. A BMJ research study confirms that Americans get almost 60% of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods. 

To define an “optimal diet,” imagine a diet that’s fixing all the problems of the SAD — one full of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and nuts; a diet that minimizes or eliminates unhealthy oils, processed meat, red meat, and junk food. 

dried legumes

Of course, making such a significant diet change overnight can be really challenging — especially in the long-term. So if you’re trying to make a healthy change, cut yourself some slack. It’s better to focus on progress, which is how we define the “feasible” diet. A diet that’s on the way to optimal — with some wiggle room so that we can actually keep it up. 

Here are some of our top takeaways from this groundbreaking new study. One of the key findings of this study: We’d all probably be much better off eating less sugar, red meat, processed meat, and processed food. A “very strong” health effect was mentioned when people consumed more fish, fruits, and vegetables. According to the study’s conclusion, a change from a “typical Western” diet to an optimal diet is associated with nearly 10 years of longer life. 

How to transition from a “Standard American Diet” to a feasible diet 

With healthy baby steps and a gradual approach, you can make changes to help you live a longer, healthier life. Here are some things you can start doing right now to start transitioning your diet for optimal health.

1. Swap meat for legumes — at least once a day 

Perhaps the most noteworthy food finding in the study was about legumes: Eating more legumes and less meat was linked to positive health, so try swapping meat for legumes like black beans, lentils, or peas (yes, peas are actually a legume!). There’s no need to eliminate meat from your diet entirely, but if you had bacon with breakfast, why not have a coconut chickpea curry for dinner?

2. Snack on nuts

Don’t sleep on nuts: They are truly unsung heroes for a longer life. Nuts have faced an uphill battle in American diet culture — they got a bad rap in the 90s, when “low fat” diets were all the rage, and some nutritionists still caution against them since they’re high in calories. However, the researchers responsible for this study suggest that a handful of nuts is a healthy addition to your diet. Since it’s true that nuts are a dense source of energy, this just means portioning is a good idea. If you’re trying to lose weight, consider the serving sizes, and if you’re trying to build muscle or gain weight, nuts are your best friends — they pack some protein, some fiber, some heart-healthy fats, and are convenient enough to have on hand pretty much at all times. 

3. Swap your breakfast cereal for whole grain oats

The Norwegian study mentioned processed food specifically as a detriment to health. This isn’t surprising, since processed food has been linked to a myriad of health concerns, and some studies even show that processed food could contain microplastics. So for this takeaway, here’s the challenge: Choose unprocessed whenever possible. Swap instant mashed potatoes with the real deal, breakfast cereal for overnight oats or another whole-grain breakfast bowl. Choosing the more natural version of something, as close to a whole food as you can get, is a great step away from the SAD — and closer to a truly optimal diet for a long, healthy life. 

4. Trade soda for spa water

The study’s researchers found that reducing or eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages is one important component of living a healthier, longer life. However, if you’re used to drinking lots of soda, it might be hard (or basically impossible) to switch to drinking pure glasses of water. Instead, consider some tasty alternatives, including spa water. This sounds fancy, but it really just means throwing some fruit and/or herbs in your water pitcher. Some good combinations: sliced strawberries and mint leaves, lemon rounds with ginger root, or orange and cucumber slices.

5. Treat yourself

The “feasibility approach diet” is the best of both worlds, since it’s not realistic to ask someone to give up chocolate cake forever. The idea isn’t to totally overhaul your diet all at once, but to cut down on foods that might shorten your lifespan while eating more of the foods that may increase it. Focus on filling most of your diet with whole, nutrient-dense food, and keep a small percentage available for snacks, treats, and sweets, which can prevent feelings of deprivation or missing out on your favorite snacks. So if you eat ice cream once a week, consider cutting it down to every two weeks. In the meantime, experiment with making a lower-sugar, healthier version — like this sorbet made from apples

Read next: 9 Longevity-Promoting Recipes from Italy’s “Blue Zone”

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