A groundbreaking study, drawing on extensive data from nearly half a million UK residents, has made a compelling discovery: a switch to a healthier diet could potentially add up to a decade to an individual’s life span. This research, spearheaded by renowned public health researcher Lars Fadnes from the University of Bergen, Norway, taps into the extensive participant base of the UK Biobank study, which commenced in 2006.
The researchers meticulously categorized the participants based on their dietary patterns and monitored the evolution of these patterns over time. They identified groups ranging from average to unhealthy eaters, along with those adhering to the UK’s Eatwell Guide and a select group following what the researchers termed the ‘longevity diet’.
Remarkably, after accounting for variables such as smoking, alcohol intake, and physical activity levels, the study found that 40-year-old men and women who shifted from unhealthy eating habits to following the Eatwell Guide could gain roughly 9 years in life expectancy. More strikingly, those who embraced the longevity diet – characterized by a high intake of whole grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and moderate fish consumption – could see an addition of 10 years to their life span.
This increase in life expectancy is not just limited to the younger population. Individuals aged 70 and above could still extend their life expectancy by approximately 4 to 5 years by adopting healthier eating habits, aligning with either the Eatwell Guide or the longevity diet. Katherine Livingstone, a prominent population nutrition researcher and co-author of the study, expressed her enthusiasm to ScienceAlert, stating, “It’s never too late to make small and sustained changes towards a healthier diet.”
While similar studies in the US have highlighted the connection between healthy eating patterns and reduced risk of premature death, this study expands the geographic scope of this research. However, it’s important to note certain limitations, such as the UK Biobank’s lack of data on rice consumption, which is significant for various migrant groups, and the predominance of White European, middle- to upper-class participants in the study.
The study acknowledges challenges in maintaining consistent dietary improvements over time, given that for many, dietary patterns fluctuate. Moreover, access to affordable, nutritious food remains a systemic problem, underlining the necessity for government intervention through policies like food taxes and subsidies. A 2017 study suggested that such fiscal policies could potentially save 60,000 lives annually in the US. Enhancing food environments in schools and workplaces by offering healthier options and reducing the availability of unhealthy choices could substantially impact public health and environmental sustainability.