How can we increase our life expectancy?

The truth is that we all more or less know the answer to this question. The good news is that there is a way. The bad news, however, is that despite the research and recommendations that could lead us to prosperity and longevity, most people stick to Western-style lifestyle and diet that definitely doesn’t contribute to more and better years – on the contrary. As a dietitian-nutritionist specializing in autoimmunity and clinical nutrition with training in plant-based nutrition, I often see that many people are not willing to make the changes needed so as to have a better and longer life, such as a change in diet, more exercise, connection with nature, quit smoking and alcohol.

Maybe this study published in November 2023 in Nature Food could change your mind. Researchers here used a previously developed model to estimate the gain or loss in life expectancy in men and women aged 40-70 years after continuous dietary changes. They used dietary data from 467,354 participants in the UK Biobank Study and the results were not surprising.

Yes, you can live 10 years longer with a balanced diet and way of life
If someone told you you could live longer, wouldn’t you ask what you need to do in order to ensure that? Well, this study is like a genie in the bottle, that can show you how to make this come true.

According to the study, longevity-associated dietary pattern had moderate intakes of whole grains, fruit, fish and white meat, a high intake of milk and dairy, vegetables, nuts and legumes, a relatively low intake of eggs, red meat and sugar-sweetened beverages and a low intake of refined grains and processed meat.

The unhealthy dietary pattern contained no or limited amounts of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, fish, milk and dairy, and white meat and substantial intakes of processed meat, eggs, refined grains and sugar-sweetened beverages. The strongest positive associations with mortality were for sugar-sweetened beverages and processed meat, while the strongest inverse associations with mortality were for whole grains and nuts.

It’s also important to note that by changing your diet from the average western diet to a balanced mostly plant-based diet, life expectancy is found to increase by about 3 years for a 40-year-old, while it can even make a difference to a 70-year-old, by something less than 2 years. Things get even better for someone who switches from an unhealthy diet to a healthy one, as he will see an increased life expectancy by whole 10 years (40-year-old) and by 5 years (70-year-old).

The most important change you can make
It seems that the best results in life expectancy are linked to lower consumption of sugary drinks and processed meats. Add to that an increase in the consumption of whole wheat cereal, fruits and nuts and it seems like you can live longer (even happily ever after) after all. And this is something we’ve seen before in many studies. Note that body mass index and energy consumption might partially have a beneficial effect between life expectancy and whole grains, vegetables and fruits and inversely for red meat and eggs. 

According to Eat-Lancet Commission it seems that by changing our diet towards plant-based nutrition, we could prevent 11 million premature deaths that are caused by wrong diet choices. At the same time, a UK Biobank report shows lower cancer risk up to 9% by following a plant-based diet.

In conclusion, when considering our way of life and diet options for a better health, it’s good to know that we can gain up to 10 years in life expectancy just by making the right choices: choosing plant-based, increasing intake of whole grains and nuts and staying away from meat, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods. Gains in life expectancy are lower the longer you wait to initiate the improvement on your diet, but the “better late than never” saying totally applies.