If the adage “you are what you eat” still holds true, it probably has less to do with having an existential crisis about being a banana and more to do with maintaining an overall healthy diet. After all, it’s not news that choosing the right foods and avoiding others can have all kinds of benefits for both your cardiovascular system and your brain. Now, new research has found that eating more of certain foods can boost your health and help you live longer—no matter what age you start the habit. Read on to see what you might want to start stocking in your fridge and pantry.
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The latest research comes from a study published on Feb. 8 in the journal PLOS Medicine in which a team of researchers in Norway ran a meta-analysis of the Global Burden of Diseases study. The database from the 2019 investigation tracked 286 causes of death, 369 diseases and injuries, and 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories worldwide, CNN reports.
Using the information, the researchers developed a model that allowed them to calculate and forecast a person’s lifespan based on an association with their diet. Results found that those who started eating healthier in their younger years could see a significant increase in their lifespan, especially by eating a Mediterranean or “blue zone” diet that includes more fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, and less processed foods and red meat. Specifically, young American women who began the healthier diet at the age of 20 could expect to add ten years onto their life, while men of the same age could see their lives extended by 13 years.
But it wasn’t just young adults who could see longevity benefits from changing their eating habits. The model found that American women who adopted the diet at age 60 could see eight years added to their life, while men of the same age could see nine extra trips around the sun. And even at age 80, both men and women could see up to 3.5 years extra of life by switching to Mediterranean-style eating habits.
“Food is fundamental for health, and global dietary risk factors are estimated to cause 11 million deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life years annually,” Lars Thore Fadnes, PhD, a Norwegian nutrition researcher and the study’s lead author, told The Daily Beast. “Understanding the health potential of different food groups could enable people to make feasible and significant health gains.” He added that while previous studies have attempted to establish a connection between longevity and dietary habits, none has done so “with the same detail” as this published research.
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While swapping out your eating style for the sake of gaining a few extra years of life may seem like an easy decision, research has shown that it may take a lot of work—especially in the United States. According to a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published last month, Americans rarely stick to recommended dietary guidelines. Only 12 percent eat the 1.5 to two cups of fruits recommended each day, while only 10 percent get the two to three cups per day of suggested veggies, which includes legumes, CNN reports. And overall, 95 percent of Americans don’t get their allotment of whole grains, which guidelines suggest should be at least half of the six total recommended ounces of grains per day.
Unfortunately, coming up short in these areas means that certain vital nutrients can be lacking in typical diets. “Legumes are practically free of saturated fat and cholesterol,” Fadnes told The Daily Beast, while also being high in fiber, protein, carbohydrates, multiple B-vitamins, copper, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and phosphorous, with whole grains touting similar benefits. The research also notes that nuts are high in healthy fats and antioxidants.
And sticking to old eating habits can also have a negative effect on health. “There’s substantial evidence that processed meat can cause bowel cancer—so much so that the World Health Organization has classified it as carcinogenic since 2015,” Tim KeyPhD, an epidemiologist at Oxford University and member of the UK Department of Health’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, told CNN in a 2019 interview.
The researchers conclude that you should incorporate elements of the Mediterranean diet into your eating habits to improve your health—ideally as young as possible. To get started, consider switching to extra virgin olive oil as your main fat instead of butter in cooking and working in a few handfuls of nuts and olives as snacks each day, Harvard Health Publishing suggests. You should also aim to add a salad to the beginning or end of each meal and incorporate more vegetables and whole grains such as bulgur, barley, farro, couscous, whole-grain pasta, or loaves of whole-grain country-style bread. And naturally, work at least three servings of legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, beans, and peas into your meals each week.
It’s also recommended to cut back on meat to smaller portions of lean poultry and only occasionally eat red meats. Instead, try to work in two to three servings of fish each week, either fresh or canned. Cut out sugary drinks and sodas completely, replacing them with fresh water, and swap out your sugary desserts with fresh fruit. And try to stick to wine in moderation as your alcoholic beverage of choice, with one five-ounce glass a day for women and two for men.
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