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January 27, 2023

Want to live longer? Eating a plant-heavy diet is a proven method

New research reiterates that diets high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables reduce the likelihood of dying from cancer, heart disease and neurodegenerative conditions

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Healthy Eating Life Expectancy Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

People who follow diets built around whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes reduce their chances of dying from cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory and neurodegenerative conditions, new research published by the American Medical Association shows.

It's a good thing when the science is consistent. It's better when the science shows that a behavior, like eating a healthy diet, can reduce the risk of death by almost 20%. Layer on guidelines that offer the flexibility to eat something you just might like, and even allow a moderate amount of alcohol, and you've got some breaking news. 

Too good to be true? Hardly.

Research just published by the American Medical Association shows that people who followed diets built around whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes – the U.S. recommended dietary guidelines – reduced their chances of dying from cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory and neurodegenerative conditions. Though the study's conclusions were generally consistent with previous research, its scientific significance and practical recommendations make it particularly notable. 

Researchers, including those from Harvard University, tracked the diets of 75,230 women and 44,085 men over a 36-year period, making it one of the longest studies comparing dietary practices with disease risk. Further, their findings demonstrated that the links between diet and death were consistent among racial and ethnic groups. 

The researchers stressed that the self-reporting structure among study participants only allowed them to show an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship. But when considered in the context of previous studies and the wide application for people from diverse cultural and personal backgrounds, their conclusions are compelling. 

Practically speaking, researchers showed that following the core principles of the dietary guidelines is the key, no matter what form or diet one uses to get there. They even allowed for a moderate amount of alcohol consumption in one of the models they tested. 

To maximize the health benefits of a diet, the experts reiterate the need to build meals around plant-based foods, limit the amount red and processed meats, and stay away from sugar and sodium. The more you stick to these guidelines, the closer you'll get to that 20% reduced mortality risk, which was achieved by those who were the most diligent in their eating regimens. 

Consistency of the science 

If this sounds familiar, it should. And this is where the consistency of the science comes in. 

Back in August 2021, I described my use of the Mediterranean Diet, referencing emerging science that showed how this plant-based diet represented a step in the right direction. It has been found to reduce the risk of colon cancer, heart disease and stroke while allowing people to enjoy red meat on occasion. The science also shows that the benefits of a plant-based diet extend to mental health including depression, anxiety, fatigue and daily functioning, as well as exerting neuroprotective effects against the effects of age-related cognitive decline. 

Not a bad return for a little bit of nutritional creativity and some discipline. Knowing what to eat can have a powerful effect on your health. Learning how to eat can complement your food choices and extend the benefits. 

Maximizing your dietary practices 

With the science aligned, and clear direction on dietary content, do the experts offer any other tips to boost your overall dietary practices? The answer is an unqualified yes. 

The National Institutes of Health has some very practical recommendations that include cooking smart, eating smaller portions, making better decisions when eating out, and keeping an eye on your calorie consumption, no matter what you eat. The agency points out that portion size has doubled over the last 20 years, so you need to offset the supersizing with reasonable portions. When dining out, NIH advises you to gravitate to menu selections lower in fat and added sugar. If you want to go deeper, can check out the dietary guidelines for direction and inspiration. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relies on rainbow imagery to make meal planning easy. The agency suggests that you think of your plate as a rainbow loaded with vitamins, fiber and minerals by including dark, leafy greens, oranges and tomatoes. You can bring color and nutrients to stews and omelets by adding peppers, broccoli or onions.

Social support

Now, if you want some sustainability insurance, you can increase your chances of sticking with your dietary program with the support of family or friends. A good social network is essential for long-term success on all facets of healthy behavior, and this is certainly the case with healthy eating and weight-loss. 

The Mayo Clinic says this support can come in at least three ways. Emotional support can help you keep your spirits up when you feel discouraged. Practical support can be critical to navigating your schedule or tending to the responsibilities of parenthood. And those close to you can be a major source of inspiration, like encouraging you to stay the course when you begin to stray for your good habits.

The upshot

With a slew of diets to choose from, it is reassuring to know that the latest science offers some clear and relatively simple direction within a framework that gives you the latitude to meet your individual tastes. A program that is not super prescriptive but directional is likely to garner more adherence and, in the long run, have a more meaningful impact on men's health.

This combination of science and practicality are a winning combination not always found in our dietary choices. The men I advocate for are more likely to follow a plan that allows them reasonable access to alcohol and, perhaps, the occasional taste of red meat. These men are not perfectionists, and an absolute ban is likely to turn them off to the whole idea of healthy eating. Alternatively, a directionally based program that limits the unhealthy and promotes creative interpretations of the healthy may just be the way to capture your attention and sustain your commitment.

Diet is an area where we must prevent perfection from being the enemy of the good. So, take the first step and try to shift your diet toward one that is more plant-based. The rewards are there. Go slow. Be creative. And keep an open mind. Remember, it's about progress over the long-run, not perfection. It's within your reach.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.

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