Eating Plans That Lead to Longer Lifespans Have One Thing in Common

Photo: Stocksy/ Nadine Greeff
We're all well aware of the fact that social media loves a shame-inducing "miracle anti-aging diet secret"—and better yet if it's overly promising, completely unrealistic, and not at all backed by science. As a result, finding practical ways to block out the noise—and better understand what's lame vs. legit when it comes to eating for longevity—is top of mind. (Hint: It doesn't involve a diet. Ever.)

That said, with the support of research-backed evidence, we’ve learned that certain eating plans have been linked to longer lifespans, and they all have one thing in common: Plants, and lots of ‘em.

Many longevity and nutrition experts have, time and again, pointed to the positive outcomes of eating fewer animal products. And while the diets of the longest-living people on the planet do rely heavily on plant-based foods, it definitely doesn’t mean that anyone interested in healthy aging should avoid meat, dairy, and the like entirely. Rather, it’s all about balance.

More ahead on the findings of this mass study and why you should incorporate more plants into your daily routine to reap their longevity-boosting benefits in a way that best works for you.

Research shows a link between eating more plants and longevity

A recent study in Jama Intern Med set out to determine the association between the dietary patterns recommended in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The experiment, which included nearly 120,000 individuals (75,230 women and 44,085 men), reviewed the participants’ eating patterns over the course of over three decades. The findings indicated that those that who adhered to four main “healthy” eating patterns were associated with a lower risk of death. Their findings were also consistent among different racial and ethnic groups.

These were the four “healthy” eating plans analyzed: Healthy Eating Index 2015 (HEI-2015), Alternate Mediterranean Diet (aMED) score, Healthful Plant-Based Diet Index (hPDI), and Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI).

Let’s delve into each one specifically. According to the USDA, Healthy Eating Index (HEI) is a measure of diet quality used to assess how well a set of foods aligns with key recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The HEI uses a scoring system to evaluate a set of foods. The scores range from zero to 100, where a score of 100 reflects that the set of foods aligns with key dietary recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines. Ranking at the top are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, total proteins (like lean meat, poultry, and eggs), seafood, plant proteins (like nuts, seeds, or soy), and fatty acids. Meanwhile, refined grains, sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats are to be consumed in moderation.

Next, the Alternate Mediterranean Diet (aMED) score is an adaptation of the Mediterranean diet that separates fruit and nuts into two groups, eliminates dairy, includes only whole grains, only red and processed meat, and uses the same alcohol range for both men and women.

The Healthful Plant-Based Diet Index (hPDI) measures nutrient-density within the category of plant-based foods—top foods being fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, tea, and coffee. Plant-based foods like refined grains and high-sugar foods, as well as animal-based foods, score low.

Lastly, the Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) assigns ratings to foods and nutrients predictive of chronic disease. (So someone that consumes no vegetables daily would score a zero, while someone who consumes five or more servings a day would earn a 10.) As such, a study conducted on 71,495 women and 41,029 men showed that those whose dietary choices scored higher on the AHEI scale had a 19 percent lower risk of chronic disease, including a 31 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease and a 33 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes when compared to people with low AHEI scores.

The key takeaways of this study

TL; DR? While all four studies differ, all emphasize the importance of consuming plant-based foods like grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. What’s more, the data showed that those who followed one or more of the four eating plans were less likely to face mortality due to cardiovascular disease, cancer, or respiratory disease during the trial compared with those who did not follow any of the four patterns or did so less often.

TL; DR? While all four studies differ, all emphasize the importance of consuming plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes.

This indicates that a combination of different eating habits is just as effective, if not better for your long-term health, than simply following one restrictive diet all of the time. Also worth noting is that the study's researchers encourage folks to focus on the eating routine and plan that’s easiest for them to follow to meet their nutritional needs and food preferences.

Again, this reiterates the importance of doing what’s best for you, especially when it comes to your relationship with food.

A registered dietitian delves into the benefits of the Mediterranean diet:

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