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The diet that could add 10 years to your life

Man and woman in kitchen with plant foods

New research pinpoints the foods that you should eat more of — and the ones to limit — if you want to live healthier, longer. (Don’t worry, you can still have coffee.) 

There are so many “anti-aging” products out there. There are wrinkle-busting serums, vitamin supplements and meal replacements, and much more, all promising to extend your youth. But what if there was a research-backed way to actually add healthy, fulfilling years to your life? 

Turns out, there is. According to a 2022 study in PLOS Medicine, there are certain aspects of our diet that have a huge impact on lifespan. The best part: The changes aren’t that hard to make. 

For the study, researchers set out to see which food groups had the most impact on health and longevity. They found that an optimal diet has more legumes, whole grains, fish and produce. It also includes a handful of nuts each day. What does it have less of? Red meat and processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages and refined grains.  

Researchers then compared the optimal diet to the traditional American diet. The latter tends to be high in sodium, added sugar and saturated fat. And it's typically low in plant foods, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables.  

The result: If people changed to this optimal diet starting in young adulthood, it would add an estimated 10.7 years to women’s lives and 13 years to men’s lives. But you don’t need a time machine to benefit. According to the study, even making these dietary changes at age 60 added about eight years to a person’s lifespan. And at age 80, it still tacked on three years.    

Why might this so-called optimal diet be such a boon for lifespans? The typical American diet is a major contributor to chronic disease, says Romina Cervigni, PhD. She’s a nutrition biologist at the Valter Longo Foundation in Milan, Italy.  

These chronic conditions include cardiovascular disease, some cancers and Type 2 diabetes. And those are three of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Are you taking metformin or another medication? Download the Optum Perks mobile prescription coupon app to find instant savings near you.) 

The good news is that you don’t have to do a total diet overhaul to get these benefits. Here’s how to make life-extending food choices that are delicious and sustainable over the long term.  

How to optimize your diet 

The study’s optimal diet is a lot like the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet. But all three are more like healthy eating patterns than “diets.” (You won’t find any 30-day crash diets around here.) Each leans heavily on plant-based foods. 

Here are the three plant foods that can help provide the biggest gains in life expectancy, according to the PLOS Medicine study.   

Legumes 

Legumes are the fruits or seeds of certain plants in the legume family. Examples are: 

  • Beans (kidney beans, black beans, pinto, etc.) 
  • Chickpeas 
  • Edamame 
  • Lentils 
  • Peanuts
  • Peas   

These picks are high in protein, fiber and nutrients such as iron and zinc. They also contain antioxidants, says Kristin Kirkpatrick. She’s a registered dietitian and consultant for the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine. These chemicals protect against cell damage and disease, and they even fight aging.  

Because legumes are packed with fiber, they can also help with digestion. They may even help protect against digestive cancers, such as stomach cancer or colon cancer. 

How to eat more of them: Legumes are great additions to soups, stews and casseroles. They hold up well during long cooking times, and they add a meaty, filling quality to any dish. You can puree beans to make healthier dips and spreads. You can sprinkle black beans on top of a salad. Or roast chickpeas for a salty, crunchy snack that’s sure to give potato chips a run for their money. 

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Nuts  

Nuts and seeds (and their butters) are packed with so many nutrients. They contain protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Some nuts, such as walnuts, are also high in omega-3 fatty acid — a healthy fat that protects the heart by lowering inflammation. Nuts can also help you maintain a healthy weight and keep your blood sugar in check, Cervigni says.  

How to eat more of them: Nuts can be easily added to just about any dish or eaten solo as a snack. Sliced almonds are terrific in oatmeal or mixed into yogurt. And a sprinkle of walnuts or pecans adds a tasty crunch to salads or savory rice dishes.  

One of the easiest ways to work them in: Make a swap. Try replacing a not-so-healthy snack (we’re looking at you, candy bars) with a nut you like, says Kirkpatrick. It will help you feel fuller and more satisfied. Nuts are high in calories, so just be mindful of your portion size. Aim for 1 ounce, or about ¼ cup, per serving. 

Whole grains 

Whole grains are the seeds of grasses that are cultivated for food. “Whole” refers to the fact that they contain all three parts of the seed — bran, germ and endosperm. Grains that are whole are more nutritious than refined ones because they contain more vitamins and fiber. Examples of whole grains include: 

  • Barley
  • Brown rice  
  • Oatmeal (rolled or steel-cut) 
  • Popcorn  
  • Quinoa 
  • Whole wheat bread, pasta or crackers 

As with nuts, eating whole grains can help you stay fuller longer. According to the American Heart Association, they can also improve your cholesterol and lower your risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. 

How to eat more of them: When shopping for bread or similar foods, opt for whole grain picks over white. How can you tell? The package will say “100% whole grain” on it. Or it will have whole grains (such as whole wheat flour) as one of the first ingredients on the ingredients list. 

Other healthy swaps include choosing brown rice instead of white, bran flakes instead of sweetened corn flakes, and whole grain pasta over regular pasta. You can also add barley to soups, eat a side of quinoa with dinner, and bread lean chicken with whole grain breadcrumbs.  

The foods you should limit to live longer 

So many fad diets out there focus on what you can’t eat. To be clear: This isn’t an elimination diet. It’s all about finding balance. 

The PLOS Medicine study found three food groups that you should consume less of to live longer. These are sugar-sweetened drinks, refined grains, and red and processed meats. 

Lucky for us, there’s often an easy healthier swap. Instead of sugar-laden sodas, you can try seltzers or no-sugar-added teas. Adding fruit to water can also be super refreshing and delicious. And, as we talked about above, you can choose whole grain options rather than refined ones.  

If red or processed meats are a staple of your diet, it can be a bit trickier. So start small. See if you can eliminate red meat or processed meat from one meal per day. Or reduce your portion size little by little. You can also try some of these healthy swaps: 

  • Swap in ground turkey for ground beef 
  • Have a tuna sandwich, rather than one with cold cuts 
  • Roast turkey, chicken or salmon, rather than beef, lamb or ham 
  • Grill chicken kebobs instead of hot dogs or sausages 

These changes will help you eat less saturated fat — a type that has been found to raise cholesterol and heart disease risk. And it will help reduce your risk of cancer. The World Health Organization considers processed meat to be a Group 1 carcinogen. That means there is enough evidence to show that it causes colon cancer in humans. 

That doesn’t mean you have to completely banish bacon. Just go easy. After all, fewer slices of bacon and more handfuls of nuts could add years to your life. 

Additional sources 
Study on foods for longevity: PLOS Medicine (2022). “Estimating impact of food choices on life expectancy: a modeling study” 
Leading causes of death: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
Whole grains and health: American Heart Association 
Processed meats and cancer risk: World Health Organization 

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