If you want to live longer, you don't need to make extreme changes in your diet — just eat a little healthier.
Researchers found that people were less likely to die early if they switched to, and stuck with, a diet that contained more whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish and less sugary beverages and red and processed meats, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The new findings would seem to be at odds with quick-fix diet trends, such as detoxes and extremely restrictive diets.
“Our results emphasize that we need to focus on overall healthy eating patterns rather than individual foods or nutrients and to make small changes that are really easy to stick with over a long term," said the study’s lead author Mercedes Sotos-Prieto, an assistant professor of food and nutrition science and a visiting scientist at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.
The researchers looked at the impact of diet on mortality in 47,994 women from the Nurse’s Health Study and 25,745 men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. All the study participants provided information on their eating habits once every four years.
After scoring people’s diets during the years 1986 to 1998, the researchers then looked at how eating patterns affected the risk of dying between 1998 and 2010. They found that a relatively small improvement in diet quality over a 12-year period was associated with a 17 percent reduced risk of death.
For example, swapping out a single daily serving of red or processed meat for a serving of nuts or legumes, would produce that 17 percent drop in risk.
“This underscores the importance of maintaining a high-quality diet over time,” Sotos-Prieto said.
While dietary improvements reduced the risk of death, worsening diet quality increased the risk — bad eating for 12 years was associated with a 6 to 12 percent increased mortality.
Previous studies have linked diet programs such as Mediterranean and DASH, which focuses on vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy to improved health and longevity, but the Harvard researchers didn't recommend a specific eating plan.
“A good diet is one that includes the essential elements of a healthy diet, is adapted to cultural and food preferences and is one you can stick with for a long time,” Sotos-Prieto said.
The new research underscores the importance of eating healthier, said Dr. Robert Kushner, who is not affiliated with the new research.
“Two key take home messages from this study are that healthy eating makes a significant difference in prolonging life, and the longer the changes are made, the greater the benefit,” said Kushner, a professor of medicine and an expert in obesity and lifestyle medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “All Americans should heed this advice — and it is never too late.”