At any age, eating healthy can extend your life

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No matter how old you are or how much junk food you eat, it’s never too late to start reversing the damage caused by a poor diet.

That’s the message from scientists who are studying how our food choices affect our lifespan and risk of developing disease. They found that people can gain significant health benefits at any age by cutting back on highly processed foods full of salt, sugar and other additives and replacing them with more nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, lentils , seafood and whole grains.

The sooner you start, the better. Following a healthy diet from an early age leads to the greatest gains in life expectancy. But even people who wait until middle age or later to improve their eating habits can still add years to their lives.

The research is empowering for several reasons. This shows that you don’t necessarily have to change your diet to get benefits. Even small changes like adding a handful of nuts to your daily diet as a midday snack and cutting back on processed meats like ham and hot dogs can potentially add years to your life. And that suggests that even if you’re 60 or older, making these relatively small changes to your diet can add up to big benefits.

Healthy eating at any age

In a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists followed approximately 74,000 people between the ages of 30 and 75 for more than two decades. During this time, they analyzed their diets and lifestyle habits and tracked changes in what they ate. The researchers used several scoring systems to assess the quality of their diets, including the Alternative Healthy Eating Index, which was developed by nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health TH Chan.

The index gives low scores to unhealthy foods and higher scores to healthier foods. Among the foods that scored highly were fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, and foods rich in unsaturated fats and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, avocados, and olive oil. Some of the unhealthy foods that scored lower were things like red and processed meats and foods high in sodium and added sugars, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, pizza, potato chips, and other junk foods.

What are ultra-processed foods? What should I eat instead?

The more nutritious foods people ate and the less unhealthy foods they consumed, the higher their diet scores. The researchers found that people who had consistently high dietary scores were up to 14 percent less likely to die from any cause during the study period than people who had consistently poor diets.

But perhaps most importantly: People who improved their eating habits saw big benefits. The researchers found that people who increased their diet scores by just 20 percent during the study had at least an 8 percent reduction in mortality during the study period and a 7 to 15 percent drop in the likelihood of dying from heart disease. diseases, in particular. Achieving a 20 percent increase in the output of your diet can be as simple as replacing sugary drinks in your diet with sparkling water and eating at least a handful of nuts or a serving of beans or lentils daily, said Mercedes Sotos-Pieto, the host author of the study.

She pointed out that most of the study participants were over the age of 60, which shows that it’s never too late to benefit from improving your eating habits. The reduction in mortality among people who have improved their eating habits is largely due to the reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease, which is strongly influenced by diet. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide.

Just add nuts, grains, beans and peas

Sotos-Pieto noted that adopting a more nutritious diet through small and gradual improvements in your food choices over time can help you lose weight and lower cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation — all of which can improve your cardiovascular health and reduce your chance of having a heart attack or stroke.

“You don’t need to drastically change your lifestyle,” said Sotos-Pieto, an assistant professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid and an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Choose small goals that you can achieve and maintain over time.”

In another study published earlier this year in PLOS Medicine, scientists analyzed a large amount of data on the effects of different foods on the risk of premature death. They then used this data, along with other research on deaths and chronic disease rates, to estimate how changes in a person’s diet might affect their life expectancy at different ages.

Researchers found that a 20-year-old who switched from a typical Western diet to an optimal Mediterranean-style diet (and stuck to it) could add an average of 11 to 13 years to their life expectancy. But even the elderly could benefit: a 60-year-old who made this change could increase his life expectancy by up to nine years, and an 80-year-old could gain about three and a half years.

The study found that the biggest increase in life expectancy came from eating more legumes such as beans, peas, lentils and peanuts. If overhauling your diet seems like a daunting task, then start small by adding a few particularly important foods to your diet.

  • Eat a handful of nuts every day
  • Add a few servings of whole grains to your diet. Switch to brown rice instead of white rice.
  • Eat at least one cup of beans, lentils, or peas daily. Add chickpeas to salad; eat a black or pinto bean burrito bowl.
  • Add nut butter (peanut butter or almond butter) to toast, oatmeal or yogurt for breakfast.

The huge health benefits you get from eating more legumes, nuts and whole grains stem from their metabolic profile, said Lars Fadnes, lead author of the PLOS Medicine study and a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway. These foods are rich in nutrients, containing large amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Legumes, for example, are high in protein and contain several B vitamins, iron, copper, magnesium, manganese, zinc and phosphorus, he said. These foods have also been shown in clinical studies to reduce inflammation and improve cholesterol levels and other metabolic markers that affect your lifespan.

Fadnes emphasized that if you eat a lot of junk food, the sooner you change your eating habits, the better. Even for people who are overweight, older and in poor metabolic health, the benefits you can gain from eating more nutritious foods, he said, “are likely to be substantial.”

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