So, what’s with this new study that made it to the front pages of every major media house with the eye-catching statement, “Making dietary changes can add up to 13 years to your life”? Yes, we are referring to the study published earlier this year in the PLOS Medicine Journal. It sounds like a plan most would be happy to sign up for!
What’s new is that researchers created an online calculator that anyone can use to get an idea of how food choices can influence how many birthdays you celebrate – check it out, especially if you are from Europe, China, Norway, or the United States. This can be applied to all countries, so don’t turn away if you don’t find yours.
Key Points from the PLOS Study
Changing your diet might add anywhere from six to 13 years to your life, depending on two factors:
- How drastic the changes are.
- How old the person is when they start.
How Was the Research Done?
Researchers used two patterns of eating – one largely consists of added sugar, red and processed meat, sugar-sweetened drinks, and refined carbohydrates (essentially a diet heavily leaning towards croissants, sodas, cookies, cakes, etc). The other was what they called the ‘Optimal’ diet – higher in whole grains (barley, buckwheat, millets, quinoa, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, pasta, brown rice), legumes (chickpeas, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, edamame, navy beans, black beans, mung beans), nuts and seeds (almonds, cashew nuts, macadamia, pistachios, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds), fish, fruits and vegetables, with way fewer foods from the first dietary pattern mentioned above.
What the researchers found was that the younger you are when you make the switch to the Optimal diet, the more years you can add to your life. For example, a 20-year-old could add another 10 to 13 years to their lifespan. Women won’t like what I’m going to say next: it seems if a woman began eating optimally at age 20, she could increase her lifespan by over 10 years whereas a man starting at the same age could add 13 years to his life! Not very fair, is it? Remember, this is not written in stone, so do give it a go anyway!
The additional number of years that can be added to your lifespan does reduce with age, according to this study, but the results are still worth making the change. Say you switch your food choices to the optimal diet at age 60. You could most probably increase your time on planet earth by another eight or nine years. This is great news for anyone who thinks it’s too late to make positive dietary changes – now we know it’s never too late!
Guess which foods made the most impact? Yes, increasing legumes, whole grains, and nuts while decreasing processed and red meats made a good difference. It is best to audit your present diet and go in the direction of adding these food types without going overboard. Of course, always speak to a qualified and registered dietitian/nutritionist to help create a bespoke nutrition blueprint in line with your individual needs. It is the best long-term investment you can do for self-care.
The results of the study are in line with what global bodies like the World Health Organization have been saying about the effect of increased production of processed foods, rapid urbanisation, and changing lifestyles that have led to a shift in dietary patterns. These patterns involve increased consumption of hyper-palatable (tasty and easy to overconsume) foods that are high in calories, salt, sugar, and fat. It also shows a pattern where many people do not eat enough vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and other nutrient-rich foods.
A plant-based (not vegan) diet is what we are eyeing. This is easily said than done for many, and I understand. Best to start now than never, and I am sure the below five ideas will come in handy, especially for those in a complicated relationship with plants.
- Blend in or hide greens into your stews, pasta sauce, dough or batter used to make bread, idlis (Indian steamed rice cakes), and pancakes. Even smoothies are a great place to add them.
- Making a beef stew? Reduce the amount of beef and add in some beans or legumes for plant-powered nutrition.
- Aim for variety. This does not mean just eating different varieties of fruits. It can also mean eating different types of the same fruit. Magnify this to all foods; trust me, boredom will never be an issue.
- Embrace meat-free Mondays (if not Mondays, any day or two would do) – it’s a great way to start small without feeling overwhelmed if you are working your way around plants. One meal, one day at a time, does it easy and nice!
- Make a meal out of a salad. Many people can’t think beyond lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes when it comes to salads. A good place to start is to think of the rainbow. Purple cabbage, blueberries, broccoli, carrot, tomatoes, and then add some chicken or beans with a sprinkle of sunflower seeds topped with herbs, olive oil, salt, and a good mix of your favourite lettuce. You’ve now got an amazingly delicious meal that will add years to your life.
In the grand scheme of things, we will all do well by eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, and poultry while minimising /avoiding/going really slow on hyper-palatable foods made with excess sugar, fat, and salt. The thing to acknowledge is that humans can thrive on varied diet patterns. This is why you have all those conflicting conversations around the ‘best’ diet, foods, exercise plans, etc.
Be it vegan, keto, intermittent fasting, pink salt vs white salt, all things brown or white, ignore all this jibber jabber and let’s understand that nutrition is a controllable factor for most of us. It is also for a lifetime. At this point, we have enough data (scientific as well as real life) to conclude that the more whole foods you include in your diet, the better your health parameters. Of course, it is not a standalone factor. Other aspects like total energy balance, physical activity, sleep, emotional well-being, and financial security are equally important – and that’s the secret to life!
Lovely Ranganath is a licensed clinical dietician in Dubai. Visit @good.food.guru for more information.