New Research Says Tweaking Just 10% of Your Diet Can Help You Live Longer
We're firm believers that allowing all foods in moderation (save for any food allergies or religious diet choices) is the happiest and healthiest way to live. With this mindset and prioritizing whole foods, when possible, you can eat more intuitively and stick with a healthy-ish eating pattern for a lifetime.
But we're always looking for little tweaks we can make to our daily routine to live stronger and longer, so our ears perked up when we spotted a new finding published in the August 2021 journal Nature Food: Shifting just 10% of your daily caloric intake (200 calories on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet) away from beef and processed meats to fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes and certain seafoods could lower your overall dietary carbon footprint by 33% and add about 48 minutes of "healthy time" to each day.
After examining 5,800 foods and ranking them by how much impact they have on the environment and the "nutritional disease burden to humans," University of Michigan scientists sorted those foods into a "red zone" (little to no nutritional value and severe environmental impact), a "yellow zone" (falling somewhere in the middle) and a "green zone" (beneficial nutritionally and little negative environmental impact). Processed meats, pork, lamb and beef fell into red territory, while nuts, fruits, field-grown vegetables, legumes, whole grains and a handful of seafood items are green.
"The researchers determined the minutes of [healthy] 'life lost' and 'life gained' through assessing the dietary risk factors of foods—nutrients, healthy and not, plus how that influenced disease risk—to give each food a score," explains Jessica Ball, M.D., RD, EatingWell's assistant nutrition digital editor. "They then put the score into an equation to give them the minutes per serving of the food."
For example, each hot dog you eat may "cost you 36 minutes of healthy life," the scientists suggest. Noshing on a 1-ounce serving of nuts instead could help add 26 minutes of extra healthy life to your agenda.
"For the environmental portion, they assessed 18 environmental factors to give a high-, medium- or low-impact score. These scores were associated with a range of time lost due to climate change; i.e., the 'red' or high-impact category was greater than 3.2 minutes lost per serving where the intermediate was 0 to 3.2 minutes lost," Ball adds. "They then combined these scores for nutrition and environment. So this is probably not 100% applicable to everyone, but it provides general conclusions about food and health—for people and the Earth."
That note about the "applicable to everyone" aspect is vital. A hot dog for one person may actually be a fairly healthy choice, say, if they're undernourished and in need of more calories to live or are short on sodium. And tree nuts are a food allergy for about 1% of Americans; for whom they're clearly not a healthy choice. Plus so many other lifestyle choices factor into the lifespan, including genetics, smoking status, physical activity levels and more.
Still, the basic lesson is solid: Our food choices can impact our healthy lifespans and the Earth, and in general, eating more plant foods and less meat is a win on both fronts. (ICYMI, here are 9 foods associated with living longer, according to research.)
"Generally, dietary recommendations lack specific and actionable direction to motivate people to change their behavior, and rarely do dietary recommendations address environmental impacts," researcher Katerina Stylianou, Ph.D., told University of Michigan News. "Previous studies have often reduced their findings to a plant vs. animal-based foods discussion. Although we find that plant-based foods generally perform better, there are considerable variations within both plant-based and animal-based foods."
Based on these findings, the study authors suggest:
- Eating fewer foods with the most negative health and environmental harms, which include highly processed meats, beef, shrimp, pork, lamb and greenhouse-grown vegetables.
- Eating more foods with the most nutritional benefits, which include field-grown fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and low-environmental impact seafood.
"The urgency of dietary changes to improve human health and the environment is clear," added Olivier Jolliet, Ph.D., the senior author of the paper and professor of environmental health sciences at University of Michigan's School of Public Health. "Our findings demonstrate that small targeted substitutions offer a feasible and powerful strategy to achieve significant health and environmental benefits without requiring dramatic dietary shifts."
More research is needed to verify these details, but we can all benefit from a little more broccoli and beans and a little less beef and bacon. As we await more findings about nutrition, the environment and the lifespan, check out 5 healthy habits that could help you live to 100, according to a longevity expert.