You don’t have to drastically change your diet in order to add years to your life, finds a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
When we think about maintaining a healthy diet, we tend to get lost in the numbers: a few ounces of this, a few grams of that. But after analyzing the dietary and lifestyle patterns of nearly 74,000 adults over a 12-year period, researchers found that participants who modestly improved their diet over time lived longer than those who didn’t. It’s the first study to show that improving your eating patterns over a dozen years can lead to a longer life.
Researchers used three scoring methods, where essentially those who ate healthier foods and nutrients got higher scores — and vice versa. Beyond whole foods, meat, and dairy, that included sugary drinks.
The results showed that the largest increase in healthy eating lowered the risk of death by 8-17%, depending on a participant’s diet score. This kind of increase, researchers said in a statement, could be as simple as swapping one serving of red or processed meat for nuts or legumes, such as beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts.
Overall, participants who maintained healthy eating patterns throughout the study period lowered their risk of death between 9-14%, with even those who started out with unhealthy eating patterns seeing a reduced risk the more healthy food they added over time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, those who followed unhealthy eating patterns saw an increased risk of early death.
Since two of the scoring methods have to do with the Mediterranean diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet, it’s no surprise that the foods researchers found contributed to the most improvement in quality are staples of the two eating plans: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and omega-3 fatty acids
“Our results highlight the long-term health benefits of improving diet quality with an emphasis on overall dietary patterns rather than on individual foods or nutrients,” said senior study author Frank Hu, professor and chair of the Harvard Chan School Department of Nutrition. “A healthy eating pattern can be adopted according to individuals’ food and cultural preferences and health conditions. There is no one-size-fits-all diet.”