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Walnut Pesto Pasta Salad

Pictured recipe: Walnut Pesto Pasta Salad

Figuring out your life expectancy may sound like the premise of a sci-fi movie or two, but new research is making it easier to quantify the impact your diet has on your lifespan. A new article in PLOS Medicine found that people who make sustained changes to their diet can add up to 13 years to their life, depending on when they make those changes.

The findings are based on data from the 2019 Global Burden of Diseases study, which researchers used to build an interactive model. The researchers found different benefits for different genders—a 20-year-old woman following a "Western diet" focused on red meat and processed foods could add about 10 years to her life if she switched to an "optimal" diet, while a 20-year-old man who did the same thing could add 13 years to his life. Making dietary changes later in life also has a "smaller but still substantial" impact, according to a media release. Making a change at 60 years old could increase life expectancy by as much as eight years for women and nine years for men. Making a change at 80 years old could add about three years for men and women.

The researchers determined that an optimal diet would include less red or processed meat and more fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts. The biggest dietary impacts came from four changes: less red or processed meat, more legumes, more whole grains and more nuts. You don't have to follow any specific diet to implement the changes, though eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet and a plant-based diet would probably help you hit those goals. 

"Research until now has shown health benefits associated with separate food groups or specific diet patterns but given limited information on the health impact of other diet changes," researcher Lars T. Fadnes, Ph.D., said in the media release. "Our modeling methodology has bridged this gap." Fadnes is a professor in the Department of Global Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Bergen in Norway. 

It's possible to dial back your red meat consumption without cutting it out entirely—in moderation, any ingredient can be a part of a healthy diet. But if you're searching for ways to enjoy your favorite beef, pork or lamb dishes without the meat content, you could look to veggie swaps, like our Mushroom French Dip or Chicago-Style Carrot Dog

Or swap in healthier meat in your favorite hearty meals, like chicken paprikash instead of pork or turkey roulade instead of stuffed skirt steak. You can even use some whole grains to give your meals an extra protein push—a cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein, while the same amount of cooked brown rice contains 6 grams. Pair that with legumes like beans, lentils or chickpeas, and you'll have a healthy meal that will leave you satisfied and possibly add a few extra days to your lifespan.

And while you may not feel like snacking on nuts all day long, there are other ways to incorporate more of them into your diet. Our Walnut-Rosemary Crusted Salmon packs a punch of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help you tame inflammation, keep your blood pressure in check and even lift your mood. And you can toss in the nut of your choice in many of our simple pesto recipes that can dress everything from whole-wheat pasta to roasted veggies or meats.

The Bottom Line

Eating less processed or red meat and more legumes, whole grains and nuts could help you add years to your lifespan, even if you wait until age 80 to make the changes. While a healthy eating plan like the Mediterranean diet or a plant-based lifestyle would help you hit those goals, it's not necessary to follow strict rules—just modify your eating habits so you can make the most of what healthy ingredients can do for you.