The research published earlier this week in the journal Nature Food, assessed the health data of nearly half a million British residents whose eating habits have been documented as part of the UK biobank study.
Researchers grouped 467,354 participants based on their eating habits and observed how these changed over time.
Participants were grouped as either average and unhealthy eaters, or as people with food intake matching the UK’s Eatwell Guide and those whose diet matched what the researchers called the “longevity diet”.
Currently, the UK population has a life expectancy at birth of about 84 years for women and 80 years for men.
Adjusting for other contributing factors like smoking, alcohol, and physical activity, the study found that 40-year-old men and women who changed from an unhealthy diet to eating healthier food, and adhered to it, gained almost 9 to 10 years in life expectancy.
“Here, using a prospective population-based cohort data from the UK Biobank, we show that sustained dietary change from unhealthy dietary patterns to the Eatwell Guide dietary recommendations is associated with 8.9 and 8.6 years gain in life expectancy for 40-year-old males and females, respectively,” scientists, including those from the University of Bergen in Norway, wrote.
“In the same population, sustained dietary change from unhealthy to longevity-associated dietary patterns is associated with 10.8 and 10.4 years gain in life expectancy in males and females, respectively,” they added.
Researchers say the longest gains in life expectancy were made by those changing their diets to consume more whole grains, nuts and fruits and less sugar-sweetened beverages and processed meats.
Those who initially followed an average diet and later changed to healthier eating habits were found to have smaller life expectancy gains.
“The bigger the changes made towards healthier dietary patterns, the larger the expected gains in life expectancy are,” researchers explained.
The life expectancy gains also seemed to be lower when the diet change was initiated at older ages, but even these are substantial, scientists say.
For instance, they say, even 70-year-olds can manage to extend their life expectancy by 4 or 5 years if they make a sustained diet change.
The latest findings point to government actions that could contribute to people’s health improvements in the UK, such as health-oriented food taxes, improving food environments in school and working places, as well as subsidies to reduce the cost of healthy foods.
“Such policy measures, informed by the up-to-date estimates on potential gains in life expectancy that we provide in this paper, could guide the deployment of resources to improve healthy eating patterns across the population,” researchers added.
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