Can a healthy diet extend your life? According to recent research, this is likely the case. We’ve known for years that diets rich in healthy fats (such as olive oil and nuts), vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants (from foods such as vegetables, fruits, and aromatic herbs) naturally extend life. This is the same type of diet found in people living in the “blue zones,” who are likely to live more than 100 years.
How many years can healthy eating add to your life?
A recent study published in PLOS Medicine and conducted by Norwegian researchers looked at changing diet to extend life. The study found that a nutrient-dense diet, similar to the “Mediterranean diet” or the Blue Zone diet, can extend life by 8 to 13 years, depending on age.
The findings are based on a model the researchers created using data from the Global Burden of Disease Study, which included thousands of participants from 204 countries. The study model was used to estimate what would happen to a person’s body and age if they switched from a highly processed “standard Western diet” to a healthy diet focused on whole foods.
The types of dietary changes found to have the greatest impact on longevity included reducing consumption of red meat, ultra-processed foods, and sugary foods, in favor of eating more vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, fish and nuts.
Here are some key findings about diets that extend people’s lives, according to the study findings:
The earlier a person starts a healthy diet, the better. For example, if a woman starts following a nutrient-dense “ideal” diet around the age of 20, she will likely add about 10 years to her life.
Men seem to benefit more from cutting out junk food and eating better. The study found that if a man starts eating optimally at the age of 20, he can add about 13 years to his lifespan.
If young people eat better, but not optimally, they can still live six to seven years longer.
Although it is best to have a balanced, unprocessed diet throughout your life, it is never too late to start. Study results suggest that even if older adults don’t start eating a Mediterranean diet until age 60, they can still increase their life expectancy from eight to nine years.
Even people in their 80s who start eating less meat and more plant proteins and other nutritious foods can benefit from an increased life expectancy of more than three years.
A healthy diet can not only promote longevity, but it can also improve your quality of life by reducing your risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes and dementia. If you are currently following a standard Western diet, it is possible that your diet is not optimal and you can afford to make some changes.
A concrete example: only about 10% of Western adults consume the recommended daily amount of fresh fruits and vegetables (two to three servings each).
Although beans/legumes are highly recommended due to their benefits to gut health, heart and weight management, not many people consume any type of beans on a regular basis. Another problem is that 95% of Westerners fail to meet the goal of eating enough whole grains versus refined grains. It is recommended that at least half of the grains be 100% whole grains, which are high in fiber and other essential nutrients.
Meat consumption in Western countries is another problem.
Countries with the highest standards of living tend to consume the most meat, but eating a lot of meat (particularly red meat and processed meat) is linked to health problems such as type 1 diabetes, including colorectal cancer.
Tips for a long life diet
What should I eat to prolong my life? If you want to add eight to twelve years to your life, follow a mostly Mediterranean-inspired diet. The sooner you do this, the better for your health, including old age.
Here are some tips for eating in a way that extends life:
Use high-quality olive oil as the main cooking oil, in addition to eating oily fish, nuts and seeds. Limit refined vegetable oils, most butter and margarine. Avoid foods that contain hydrogenated and trans fats.
Eat foods rich in antioxidants, such as fresh vegetables, leafy greens, peppers, onions, garlic, berries, herbs, and spices.
Eat plenty of fiber, especially in 100% vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
Reduce your intake of red meat and processed meat, especially traditional beef, hot dogs, salami, cured meats and cold cuts.
Add more plant-based proteins to your meals, such as legumes (peas, chickpeas, lentils), whole grains (quinoa, oats, buckwheat), and nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin, pistachios).
Avoid foods with added sugar, such as sweets, cereals, sugary dairy products, and soft drinks. Instead, have fruit, a little raw honey, or dark chocolate to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Eat dairy products in moderation, especially if they cause digestive problems for you. Choose unsweetened yogurt and kefir, as well as aged cheeses in small batches, to get the most benefits.
Estimating the effect of food choices on life expectancy: a modeling study
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