Can Switching to a Plant Based Diet Add Years to Your Life?
Eating Right
March 23, 2022
Can Switching to a Plant Based Diet Add Years to Your Life?

Are you familiar with the popular expression, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away?” While it’s been debunked that just adding one apple a day to your diet will result in fewer doctor visits, the intended association that consuming more healthful foods as a way to remain in good health still holds true, especially after new research has revealed switching to a plant-based diet can add years to your life. Yep, you read that correctly: years. In fact, it could be more than a decade longer in some circumstances, and anyone can start up at any age and reap the benefits.

That’s according to a new study from the University of Bergen in Norway that was published in PLOS Medicine. In the study, researchers used existing data from previous analyses and the Global Burden of Disease study to create a model that estimates the effect on life expectancy from a range of dietary changes. This model is called the Food4HealthyLife calculator and is completely free and available online for anyone to use, albeit, it can be a bit confusing to use.

One of the key findings taken away from the study concluded that eating more legumes, whole grains and nuts, while eating less red meat and processed meat, increased life expectancy.

While anyone can stand to benefit from the switch, the study did find starting earlier was linked to greater longevity, with the greatest increase to lifespan occurring in those in their 20s. Males saw an average increase of 13 years while females saw around 11 years. People in their 60s, however, saw an average increase of 8 additional years.

Those findings come as no shock to Viviana Quintero, a Texas Health nutrition intern at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

“Our traditional Western diet tends to be high in fat, especially saturated fats and fats that come from processed foods. Also, the human research shows our Western diet is low in dietary fiber,” Quintero explains. “There are numerous links with a high fat, low fiber diet to the development of heart disease, cancer, and gastrointestinal diseases. We are learning more also about the influence of food on our immunity from new viruses. Reducing red and processed meats, while favoring a plant-based diet, can help reduce comorbidities and increase life expectancy.”

Understanding What “Plant-Based” Is

One of the biggest things that stand in the way of plant-based diets tends to be a misconception about what “plant-based” is. When you hear or see the words “plant-based,” you might think of vegetarian or vegan diets that are completely void of animal products, and that may be just enough to dissuade you from leaning into it if you don’t want to fully give up meat. Quintero says this misconception is common, but eating plant-based is more about rethinking your priorities when it comes to foods and your health versus solely staying away from meat for various reasons.

“A vegan diet excludes all animal products and foods that are made of animal products, while a vegetarian diet usually excludes all meat, fish and poultry, but may allow for eggs and dairy depending on your preferences. A plant-based diet usually focuses around diets that include mostly foods from plant origins, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and meat substitutes,” she explains. “But someone eating a plant-based diet can also have the flexibility to add animal products such as eggs, dairy, like a vegetarian, but you can also add small, portion-controlled amounts of lean meat into your meals,” she explains.

Building Your Meal Around Plants

That being said, eating plant-based does not mean eating only plants; it’s about prioritizing plants first and animal proteins second. Think of meat as more of a condiment of sorts instead of the main act.

Breakfast is one of the easiest meals to lean plant-based because chances are you’re eating a pretty plant-based breakfast without realizing it. While the traditional American breakfast typically includes rich processed meats like bacon, sausage or ham, many don’t usually have the time to consume breakfasts with these items during the week when they’re rushing to get out the door.

For example, instead of having a big pork chop for dinner with a side salad, make a big salad with mixed greens, one cup of protein-rich chickpeas (seasoned however you prefer), and two ounces of thinly sliced pork tenderloin on top. You’ll hit the 30 grams of protein you need to build muscle while still enjoying the flavors of the pork.

Some high protein plant-based sources include:

  • Black beans
  • Quinoa
  • Soy
  • Edamame
  • Chickpeas
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Lentils
  • Legumes
  • Tofu

 

“If you’re thinking about what an entire day’s meals may look like, try whole-grain toast and a veggie omelet for breakfast, followed by an apple with peanut butter as a snack,” says Kaylee Jacks, a sports nutritionist at Texas Health Sports Medicine. “For lunch, try a meatless burrito bowl with whole-grain rice, black beans, taco-seasoned edamame and chickpeas, sweet potato, and then a side of fruit. A great midday snack would be trail mix consisting of whole-grain cereal, nuts and unsweetened dried fruit. Finally, for dinner, you could bake or grill up any lean protein of your choice (salmon, chicken, sirloin, etc.), steam some vegetables, then add a portion of whole-grain rice and some mixed fruit for a sweet end.”

If you’re looking for a great pre- or post-workout snack, Jacks suggests focusing on good carbs before a workout and then good carbs plus protein for after the workout.

Pre-workout snacks could be:

  • A piece of fruit
  • Applesauce
  • Fruit snacks
  • Pretzels
  • Crackers
  • A granola bar

“Soy protein is a good plant-based post-workout option with all the nine essential amino acids, Jacks adds. “NSF Certified for sport Soy protein powder in a fruit smoothie or oatmeal are good examples.”

Anytime is a Great Time to Start

One of the biggest positive takeaways from the University of Bergen study is the fact that it shows benefit no matter what age you start. It’s never too late or too early to make lifestyle changes that will have great short- and long-term effects on your health.

“Our bodies are amazing to be able to make improvements over the course of time,” Quintero adds. “Making the steps to decrease processed foods and eat more fresh and natural foods is a good start, and over time it will begin to feel second nature. Before you know it, you could be seeing success in terms of disease prevention, ideal weight and achieving lab work that is within normal limits.”

 

*reviewed by Denice Taylor, a registered dietitian nutritionist on the staff at Texas Health Arlington.
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