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Live Long and Prosper

Live Long and Prosper

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How a great diet can add years to your life

Do you want to live to be 90 or 100? Thanks to advances in medical science, that goal is increasingly within reach.

Most of us don’t want to live longer, however, if we are going to be burdened by the diseases of aging – illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

“People don’t just want to live longer,” says Frank Hu, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “They want to live longer without a major chronic disease.”[1]

Poor diets are responsible for up to 60% of the chronic disease burden worldwide.

Much of the chronic disease risk is linked to dietary habits. A groundbreaking study of health data and food intakes across 195 countries found that poor diets are responsible for up to 60% of the chronic disease burden worldwide.[2] “Our findings show that suboptimal diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risk globally, highlighting the urgent need for improving human diet across nations,” said the authors.

If we adopt healthier diets we can greatly reduce our risks of chronic disease. People who consume balanced diets have lower risks of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and other diseases linked to aging.[3],[4],[5],[6]

Switching to a better diet could add years to your life

Remarkably, a good diet may add 10 to 13 years to your life.[7] This stunning result was announced in February 2022 in the peer-reviewed journal, PLoS Medicine.

The study showed that men and women could see a substantial increase in lifespan by switching from a typical Western diet to an “optimized” diet.[7] The largest gains could be made by eating more whole grains, legumes, and nuts; and consuming less processed meat and red meat.

Young women who began a healthier diet at the age of 20 could expect to add ten years to their lives, while men of the same age could see their lives extended by 13 years.

It wasn’t just the young who lived longer by changing their eating habits: individuals who adopted the diet at age 60 could see eight to nine more years of life.

This study confirms that it’s never too late to start over. Even at age 80, men and women could experience up to 3.5 years extra of life by adopting healthy eating habits.

What constitutes a healthy diet?

By all metrics, healthy diets are those that provide an abundance of fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), nuts, seeds, whole grains, fermented foods, and fish.[2],[6],[8] Different colors of fruits and vegetables have different nutrients, so the more variety you consume, the better.

Healthy diets also minimize unhealthy foods like salted foods, refined grains, baked goods, sweets and ice cream, sugar-sweetened beverages, cured meats (like bacon or bologna) and deep-fried foods.[2],[8],[9] Avoiding these items can help significantly reduce the risk of chronic illness and premature death.

Mediterranean eating patterns are among the healthiest in the world

The traditional diets of people who live in Italy and Greece, near the Mediterranean Sea, are among the healthiest in the world.[10],[11],[12],[13]

Mediterranean diets are characterized by a high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains; a high intake of olive oil; a moderate intake of fish; a moderate intake of dairy products (primarily in the form of cheese or yogurt); and a low intake of red meat.[14] Like other healthy diets, the Mediterranean diet avoids foods that are high in sugar, salt, refined grains, and saturated fats.

Image credit: Mediterranean Diet Foundation.

Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet may help correct leaky gut, enhance mitochondrial function, reduce blood homocysteine levels, and combat inflammation and oxidative stress.[11],[13],[15],[16],[17]

The Mediterranean diet is associated with a 30-40% lower incidence of cardiovascular disease.

The correlation between Mediterranean dietary patterns and lower rates of heart disease was first documented over 50 years ago.[18] Compared to Western diets, the Mediterranean diet is associated with a 30-40% lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, one of the biggest causes of mortality in the developed world.[14],[19],[20]

And that’s not all: Mediterranean diets are associated with lower risks of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, frailty, and fractures.[12],[14],[20],[21],[22],[23],[24],[25],[26]

People aged 70 to 90 years who followed a Mediterranean diet, were physically active, refrained from smoking, and consumed alcohol moderately were found to have a 50% reduction in mortality from all causes. In other words, adopting healthy habits cut their risk of death from any cause in half.[27]

Nutritional benefits of the Mediterranean diet

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans has recognized the Mediterranean diet as one of three healthy eating patterns.[28] The Mediterranean diet has been endorsed by the Mayo Clinic, Harvard University, and other centers of excellence.

The Mediterranean diet contains high levels of antioxidants;[15],[29],[30] monounsaturated fatty acids (from olive oil);[31],[32] omega-3 fatty acids (from fish and nuts);[33],[34] and fermentable fibers, which support a healthy microbiome.[35],[36],[37] For enhanced support, nutraceuticals (including probiotics and botanicals) can also be used.[38],[39]

Of course, specific nutrient deficiencies can still occur on this or any other diet.[40],[41],[42],[43] Plant-based diets can lead to insufficient intakes of vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Multivitamin and mineral supplementation can help fill in nutritional gaps.[44]

 

In sum, adopting a Mediterranean-style diet at any age may significantly improve your health and lengthen your life. To see how your diet stacks up, check out the Mediterranean Diet Scoring Tool developed by the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.[45],[46]

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in the following posts:

The Healthspan Imperative: Why healthspan is the new focus of geroscience

Change Your Habits, Change Your Life: The key to success is in the cues

How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life: What’s good for the microbiome is good for the body

 

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