At any age, a healthy diet can extend your life – The Washington Post

That’s the message from scientists who study how our food choices affect our life spans and our risk of developing diseases. They have found that people can gain sizable health benefits at any age by cutting back on highly processed foods 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 research is empowering for several reasons. It shows that you don’t necessarily have to transform your diet to gain 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 it suggests that even if you’re in your 60s or older, making these relatively small changes to your diet could still lead to major benefits.

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

But perhaps most important: 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 their likelihood of dying from heart disease, specifically. Achieving a 20 percent increase in your diet score could be as simple as replacing the sugary drinks in your diet with sparkling water and eating at least one handful of nuts or one serving of beans or lentils daily, said Mercedes Sotos-Pieto, the lead author of the study.

She pointed out that most of the participants in the study were over 60 years old, demonstrating that it’s never too late to benefit from an improvement in your eating habits. The reductions in mortality among people who improved their eating habits largely stemmed from a decreased incidence of cardiovascular disease, which is strongly influenced by diet. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide.

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

The researchers found that a 20-year-old who switched from the typical Western diet to an optimal Mediterranean-style diet (and stuck with it) could add on average 11 to 13 years to his or her life expectancy. But even seniors could benefit: A 60-year-old who made this switch could boost their 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 stemmed 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.

The outsize health benefits you gain from eating more legumes, nuts and whole grains stems from their metabolic profile, said Lars Fadnes, the lead author of the PLOS Medicine study and a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway. These foods are nutrient-dense, containing large amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals.

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

This content was originally published here.

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