By Victoria Allen, Daily Mail Science Editor
16:19 Nov 20, 2023, updated 16:41 Nov 20, 2023
Switching to a healthier diet in middle age could add more than eight years to your life.
Transitioning from a typical British unhealthy diet to following the NHS Eatwell Guide could help a 40-year-old woman live around eight years and seven months longer.
That could mean living to 86 instead of 77.
For a 40-year-old man, the same dietary change could help extend his life expectancy by nearly nine years, from dying at age 74 to almost reaching age 83.
According to a study of more than 460,000 people in the UK, the most important dietary changes for living longer are reducing sugary drinks and processed meats such as sausages and bacon, and eating more nuts and whole grains, such as those found in whole grains. Grain bread and healthy breakfast cereals.
The good news is that study results suggest it’s never too late to overhaul your diet.
Even 70-year-olds who switched from an unhealthy diet to strictly following the Eatwell Guide experienced an increase in life expectancy almost half that of 40-year-olds.
A 70-year-old man could live four years longer until he reaches 86, while a 70-year-old woman could live about four years and five months longer until she passes her 88th birthday.
The Eatwell Guide advises eating five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, consuming enough starch- and protein-rich foods and reducing your intake of foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
Professor Lars Thadnes, who led the study from the University of Bergen, said: “Healthy eating can prevent premature deaths from heart attacks and strokes.”
What should a balanced diet look like?
- Eat at least 5 servings of different fruits and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count;
- Basic meals are potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains;
- 30 grams of fiber per day: This is equivalent to eating all of the following: 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, 2 whole-grain cereal cookies, 2 thick slices of whole-grain bread, and a large baked potato with skin on;
- Have some dairy products or milk alternatives (e.g. soy drinks) and choose options with less fat and less sugar.
- Eat some beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 servings of fish per week, one of which should be oily);
- Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consume them in small quantities.
- Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water daily;
- Adults should consume less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women and 30g for men per day.
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
“People changing their diet as much as possible could help meet goals to reduce these preventable deaths.”
“A key priority is for people to reduce consumption of sugary drinks such as cola and soda, as well as processed meats such as bacon and sausages, and eat more whole grains and nuts.”
“The Eatwell Guide provides a framework to make us more conscious of what we consume.”
The study, published in the journal Nature Food, looked at 467,354 people involved in the UK Biobank study who filled out questionnaires about what they had eaten in the previous year.
These people were tracked over time to determine the age at which they died, which shed light on which diets are associated with longer lives.
Those with an unhealthy diet, who were among the fifth of people most likely to die prematurely, typically ate few vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish, white meat and milk or dairy products – or none at all .
However, they consumed a significant amount of processed meat, sugary drinks, eggs and refined grains – processed rather than whole grains, such as those found in white bread, white rice and cookies.
The greatest successes from following the Eatwell Guide have been seen in people with this type of unhealthy diet.
But even people with an average diet could extend their lives by more than a year if they switch to the Eatwell Guide’s recommendations at age 40.
The greatest gains in life expectancy were seen among those who ate the healthiest diets among study participants.
These people ate lots of vegetables, nuts, legumes like lentils and chickpeas, and milk and dairy products, while eating little processed meat and refined grains and not too much red meat, eggs, or sugary drinks.
If people with the unhealthiest diets switched to the healthiest diet, the results show, they could extend their life expectancy by more than a decade at age 40, and by more than five years if they made the switch at age 70.
However, following the Eatwell guide resulted in about 80 percent of the benefits found with the healthiest diet, and the guide’s simple rules may be easier for people to follow in real life.
The study found that the benefits of a healthy diet were linked to life expectancy, even after controlling for other factors such as whether people smoked, how much alcohol they drank, how old they were and how much they exercised.
Previous findings have shown that the average Brit consumes half a liter of sugary drinks, 50 grams of processed meat, the equivalent of six slices of bacon, and 100 grams of red meat every day.
Unhealthy diets are estimated to cause more than 75,000 premature deaths per year in the UK.