At any age, a healthy diet can extend your life


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

This is the message of scientists who study how our food choices affect our lifespan and disease risk. They’ve found that people can get major health benefits at any age by cutting back on heavily processed foods that are loaded with salt, sugar and other additives and replacing them with more nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, lentils, seafood and whole grains.

The earlier you start, the better. Eating a healthy diet from a young 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.

Research is empowering for several reasons. It shows that you don’t necessarily have to change your diet to see the 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 add years to your life. She points out that even if you’re in your 60s or older, making these relatively small changes in your diet can still yield big benefits.

Promote healthy food at any age

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

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

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

The more nutritious foods people eat, and the fewer junk foods they eat, the higher their diet score will be. The researchers found that people with consistently high diet 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 significant benefits. The researchers found that people who increased their diet outcomes by only 20 percent during the study had at least an 8 percent decrease in mortality during the study period and a 7 to 15 percent decrease in the likelihood of dying from heart disease, specifically. Achieving a 20 percent increase in your diet score can be as simple as replacing sugary drinks in your diet with sparkling water and eating at least one handful of nuts or one serving of beans or lentils per day, said lead author Mercedes Sotos Beto. the study.

She noted that most of the study participants are over 60 years old, showing that it’s never too late to take advantage of your improved eating habits. The decrease in mortality among people who improved their eating habits is largely due to the lower incidence of cardiovascular diseases, which are strongly influenced by diet. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide.

Just add nuts, grains, beans and peas

Soto-Beto notes that eating a more nutritious diet by making small, incremental improvements in your food choices over time can help you lose weight and lower cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and inflammation levels — all of which can improve your cardiovascular health and reduce your chance of having an attack. heart attack or stroke;

“It is not necessary to change your lifestyle drastically,” said Sutos Peto, 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 MEDICINE PLOSScientists analyzed large amounts of data on the effect of different foods on the risk of premature death. They then used this data, along with other research on mortality and chronic disease rates, to estimate how changes in a person’s diet might affect life expectancy at different ages.

Researchers have found that a 20-year-old who switched from a typical Western diet to an ideal Mediterranean-style diet (and stuck to it) can add, on average, 11 to 13 years to life expectancy. But even the elderly can benefit: A 60-year-old who made this change could boost 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 gains in life expectancy resulted from eating more legumes such as beans, peas, lentils and peanuts. If fixing your diet seems like a daunting task, start off a bit by adding some 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 the salad. Have a bowl of burritos with black or pinto beans.
  • Add nut butter (peanut butter or almond butter) to toast, oatmeal, or yogurt for breakfast.

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

He said that legumes, for example, are rich in protein and contain many B vitamins, iron, copper, magnesium, manganese, zinc and phosphorous. Clinical trials have also shown that these foods reduce inflammation and improve cholesterol levels and other metabolic markers that affect your life span.

Fadence 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 have poor metabolisms, the benefits they can reap from eating more nutritious foods, he said, “are likely to be significant.”

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Do you have a question about healthy eating? E-mail EatingLab@washpost.com We may answer your question in a future column.


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