Can making changes to one’s diet help increase the lifespan? According to a study published in PLOS Medicine, by starting to eat healthy at the age of 20, women could add just over 10 years, while men could add up to 13 years to their life.
The study also pointed out that it is never too late to start, as even at the age of 60, eating healthy can help increase a women’s lifespan by eight years, and that of a man by nine years. At the age of 80 years, people can extend their lifespan by 3.5 years.
The study created a model of replacing a typical Western diet focused on processed foods and red meat with an optimised diet focused on more fruits and vegetables, and less processed foods and red meat. The model was created based on existing meta-analyses and data from the Global Burden of Diseases study. The model is now publicly available as an online tool called the Food4HealthyLife calculator.
The study by Lars Fadnes of the University of Bergen, Norway, and colleagues, notes that it stands to good reason that food is and can be used as preventive medicine.
The largest gains in number of years would be made by eating more legumes, more whole grains, and more nuts. Less red meat and less processed meat could help contribute to improved life expectancy.
“The notion that improving diet quality would reduce the risk of chronic disease and premature death is long established, and it only stands to reason that less chronic disease and premature death means more life expectancy,” said Dr David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine and nutrition, who was not involved in the study.
The results of the study are pertinent in the wake of global bodies like World Health Organization stating that “increased production of processed foods, rapid urbanisation and changing lifestyles have led to a shift in dietary patterns”. ‘People are now consuming more foods high in energy, fats, free sugars and salt/sodium, and many people do not eat enough fruit, vegetables and other dietary fibre such as whole grains,’ it notes on its website.
Dr Jinal Patel, dietitian, Apollo Spectra Hospital, Mumbai told indianexpress.com that a healthy diet includes fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, pulses, whole grains, and lentils. “Mindful eating is essential as it helps one to stay in top shape, and keep various diseases, allergies and conditions at bay. Avoid meat, processed, junk, oily and canned food, as processed meat can lead to bowel cancer or even heart disease. A healthy diet will boost the immune system, while a high-calorie diet can lead to obesity which can further cause diabetes, heart problems, or high blood pressure,” she said.
According to her, a “healthy diet can surely increase the lives of people by cutting down the risk of early deaths due to chronic diseases”. “Nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains are jam-packed with protein, fats, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that will help prevent chronic diseases. Add chickpeas, quinoa, broccoli, tofu to the diet and see the difference,” she added.
WHO also states that the exact make-up of a diversified, balanced and healthy diet will “vary depending on individual characteristics” (e.g. age, gender, lifestyle and degree of physical activity), cultural context, locally available foods and dietary customs. However, the basic principles of what constitutes a healthy diet remain the same.”
Dr Megha Kambli, M.D. (Pathology), pathologist, Medical Affairs, Metropolis Healthcare Ltd said that with proper guidance, one should be able to make the tweaks considering the variety of health-oriented foods now available. “Eating a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables, and limiting intake of salt, sugars and saturated fats, are essential aspects of a healthy diet,” she said.
Dr Abhishek Subhash, consultant, Internal Medicine, Bhatia Hospital Mumbai shared that most people usually shift to a healthy diet after some illness. “It is always advisable to adopt healthy eating habits early on in life to prevent any lifestyle diseases. Though healthy diet plays a major role in longevity, it should be coupled with good exercise, adequate sleep, and rest,” he said.