Published in the journal PLOS Medicine, the meta-analysis created a model using existing data from the Global Burden of Diseases, a breakthrough study that collected information on premature deaths and disabilities caused by over 350 diseases and injuries in 195 countries from 1990 to 2019 with the intention of influencing policy level change on a global scale. Now, researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway have used the data to estimate the affect various dietary changes have on life expectancy. "Food is fundamental for health, and globally dietary risk factors are estimated to cause 11 million deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life years annually," write the study authors.
In particular, the group identified one big takeaway: "The largest gains [in life expectancy] would be made by eating more legumes, whole grains, and nuts, and less red and processed meat," the researchers write. They arrived at this conclusion by comparing the health outcomes of people eating a "typical Western diet" that included food items like sugary drinks and red meat, people eating an "optimized diet" that included a large quantity of food groups like vegetables and no foods that would appear in the former food protocol, and people eating a "feasibility approach diet," or a diet that met somewhere in the middle.
On the surface level, these findings may sound like more salads and less burgers, but Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian nutritionist, says that she would recommend applying a broader approach to the advice based on the scientific findings of the Bergen crew. "Switching from a typical Western diet to one that includes a higher intake of whole grains, legumes, fish, fruits, veggies, and nuts—and includes less red and processed meat, less drinks with added sugar, and less refined grains—could significantly increase life expectancy," she says.
That said, there are a few specific benefits of these aforementioned longevity-boosting foods that are worth zooming in on.
"These are a staple of a plant-based diets and include chickpeas and lentils. These foods provide fiber and protein, a combination that helps you feel fuller for longer," says Gorin. You can enjoy roasted chickpeas, or enjoy lentils in a soup or salad.
"These include foods like oatmeal, amaranth, and millet. They’re a surprising source of protein and also offer fiber. And certain whole grains, like millet, offer iron, which is especially important for plant-based eaters because iron is of particular concern for vegan and vegetarian eaters," says Gorin.
With this knowledge in mind you're ready to enjoy countless plant-based meals. Just remember: It's always worth noting that, like any study, this research has its limitations. "Depending on what age you are when you switch your diet, the exact projected life expectancy varies," says Gorin. "This also varies based on gender. For instance, changing your diet at age 60 would increase life expectancy by eight years for women and almost nine years for men. At age 20, this would result in a six-year increase for women and a seven-year increase for men." So when you're deciding what to eat, bear in mind that this study is more guidance than law. After all: Only you know what your body needs to eat in a given moment.
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