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Choosing legumes over red meat could help increase a person’s life expectancy by more than a decade, according to researchers.
In a study published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Medicine, a team from the University of Bergen in Norway found that prolonged changes from a typical Western diet to “optimizing diets” could “translate into more than a decade for young adults.”
For people who are older, the gains would be smaller, but still substantial.
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Even a feasibility approach diet, which they described as the midpoint between an optimal and typical Western diet, includes increased life expectancy by 7% or more for both sexes across age groups.
The authors used data from the 2019 Global Burden of Disease study and “life table methodology” to estimate how life expectancy altered with sustained changes in diet, like intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, refined grains, nuts, legumes, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products, red meat, processed meat and sugar-sweetened beverages.
From age 20, a woman from the U.S. who began eating optimally could increase her lifespan by more than a decade and a man could increase his by 13 years.
The largest gains in life expectancy would be made by eating more legumes, whole grains and nuts, and less red meat and processed meat.
Switching to an optimized diet at the age of 60 would increase life expectancy by eight years for women and nearly nine for men.
People who are 80 years old would gain 3.4 years and a change from a typical to feasibility approach diet would increase life expectancy by 6.2 years for 20-year-old women from the U.S. and 7.3 years for men.
“A sustained dietary change may give substantial health gains for people of all ages both for optimized and feasible changes. Gains are predicted to be larger the earlier the dietary changes are initiated in life,” the researchers said, noting that their Food4HealthyLife calculator could be a useful tool for others to better understand the health impact of dietary choices.
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The study also noted that dietary risk factors are estimated to cause 11 million deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life years annually around the world.
A Jan. 7 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 12.3% of adults met fruit recommendations and 10% met vegetable recommendations.
“The prevalence of meeting fruit intake recommendations was highest among Hispanic adults and lowest among males; meeting vegetable intake recommendations was highest among adults aged ≥51 years and lowest among those living below or to the poverty level (income to poverty ratio,” it said.
Adults are advised to consume 1.5- to-2 cup-equivalents of fruits and 2-3 cup-equivalents of vegetables daily.
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“A healthy diet supports healthy immune function and helps to prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and some cancers; having some of these conditions can predispose persons to more severe illness and death from COVID-19,” the CDC report warned.
Red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.