If you want to live a long, healthy life, add more plant-based foods to your diet. A new study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers suggested that adding more fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains to your diet could lower your risk of dying early due to health problems like heart disease.
For the study, the researchers used data from both men and women who participated in two major national health studies. They looked at information on more than 47,000 women aged 64 on average who were enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study, as well as over 25,000 men of the same average age, who participated in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. All participants were free of cancer or heart disease when they entered their studies.
The researchers evaluated the changes in the participants’ diet during a 12-year follow-up period using dietary reports. They came up with three different scales to measure how much plant-based foods the participants added to their diets. These were: overall plant-based diet, a healthy plant-based diet and an unhealthy plant-based diet. The unhealthiest option included foods like fruit juices, refined grains, sugary foods and potatoes.
The results showed that participants who had the largest increase in overall plant-based diet were eight percent less likely to die early from all causes. Those who had a “healthy” plant-based diet were 10 percent less likely to die from heart disease. In this type of diet, participants replaced one serving of refined grains with whole grains every day. They also added one serving of fruits and vegetables every day, and reduced their intake of sugary drinks by one serving per day. On the other hand, participants who followed the unhealthiest diet had an 11 percent higher risk of death.
“Over a period of time, consuming more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, while decreasing your intake of refined grains, sweets and desserts, and animal foods such as animal fat meat, and miscellaneous animal-based foods, may lower your risk of death from heart disease and other causes,” Dr. Megu Y. Baden, the lead researcher of the study, said in a statement.
Baden also told Healthline.com that these results were in line with previous research that suggested plant-heavy diets reduced the risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. However, this study took it a step further by suggesting how much these foods can prolong your life. Baden explained that these foods increase longevity because they are known to reduce inflammation and have antioxidant effects.
Improving your diet
Nutrition experts suggest that the quality of plant-based foods is more important than quantity. The focus must be incorporating whole wheat, whole fruits and vegetables, and nuts into your diet, while things like fruit juices, refined grains, sugary foods and potatoes should be avoided.
Replace red meat and processed meats with plant-based proteins such as chia seeds, edamame, legumes and tofu, and drink water instead of soda or fruit juice. Refined fruit juice is almost as damaging to your health as soda because it lacks fiber and is quickly digestible.
If you’re having a hard time making healthy changes to your diet, experts suggest that you start with what you already have to set helpful, realistic goals. Improved nutrition varies from person to person because of considerations such as budget, schedule and taste preferences. (Related: Athletes Eat Plant-Based Diet for Health, Longevity and Environmental Concerns.)
“Try making meals with at least three food groups. If you can, aim for fiber, healthy fat, and protein at each eating occasion,” suggested Alyssa Pike, RD, of the International Food Information Council Foundation.