Cutting out red meat and processed meat in favour of eating more legumes, whole grains and nuts could increase life expectancy by more than a decade, a new study suggests.
A team of researchers compared a “typical Western diet” to an “optimal diet”, and found that switching to the latter could add up to 10.7 years of life for women and 13 years of life for men.
The study, which looked at the life expectancy of adults in the US, said that making healthier dietary changes earlier in life could lead to larger life expectancy gains.
A “typical Western diet” consumed by the average American contains hardly any legumes, too few fruits and vegetables, and too much dairy and sugary drinks.
The researchers, from the University of Bergen, Norway, found that eating more legumes led to the biggest gains in years of life, adding about 2.3 years of life expectancy for both men and women combined.
Eating more whole grains led to an additional 2.2 years, while consuming more nuts added just under two extra years.
Making the dietary changes later in life can still result in significantly higher life expectancy, the study found, even for people in their 80s.
Men and women in their 60s stand to gain 8.4 years of life combined if they swap our red meats and processed meat for the more “optimal diet”, while those in their 80s could still add 3.4 years.
The study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, noted that there were “substantial individual variations in diet profile”, which meant benefits of the diet varied from person to person, depending on their existing diet, age and lifestyle factors.
For example, people who already consume a diet that is relatively similar to the “optimal diet” can expect fewer additional benefits compared to individuals consuming a “typical Western diet”.
“Understanding the relative health potential of different food groups could enable people to make feasible and significant health gains,” the study authors wrote.
They recommended that clinicians, policy makers and regular people use a “Food4HealthyLife calculator”, which is a publicly available tool that helps people estimate the effect on life expectancy from a range of dietary changes.