In a perfect world, we would eat well all our lives. But for those of us who have left our run a little late, scientists have found the dietary decisions we make during middle age – and beyond – can have a far-reaching effect on our health, even taking years off our lives.
A new study by the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute has found several food groups were linked to better heart health and a lower chance of dying from a number of causes 20 years down the line. The study logged the food habits of 11,000 men and women with an average age of 47, who had never experienced a heart attack or stroke previously, and continued to track their health 18 years after completion of their log.
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Dr Nilay Shah, the lead author of the study, reported that the food groups most beneficial for promoting a longer, healthier life were vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts, with vegetables found to be most beneficial in lowering a subject’s risk of death. Those who ate the most vegetables had lower risks of dying during the study follow-up period than those who ate less than average.
On the other hand, subjects who ate the most foods high in solid fats – such as fried foods and sugary baked goods – had the highest risk of dying from a number of risk factors compared to the rest of the subject pool.
Clare Collins, a professor of nutrition and dietetics and director of research at the school of health sciences at the University of Newcastle, says while these findings may not be particularly surprising, what is revealing is just how few Australians aren’t eating the target of two fruits and five serves of veggies per day, saying “less than 7 per cent of Australians get enough vegetables and fruit”.
Professor Collins agrees with the study’s findings, saying that while we should optimally be eating well across our lifetime, it’s never too late to start, “whether you’re middle aged or even older”. However she adds that it’s not just the servings of veggies and fruit that are important for longevity, but the variety of different foods.
“A number of other studies have shown it’s the diversity of vegetables and fruit that gives the stronger disease protection or improvement in health. So if you’ve got two people and they’re both eating five serves of vegetables per day, the one who’ll be healthier and live the longest is not the one having five serves of potato a day, it’s the one having a serve of potato, a serve of pumpkin, a serve of zucchini, a serve of carrots and a serve of corn.
“You’re getting a bigger range of vitamins and minerals, a bigger range of types of dietary fibre and a bigger range of phytonutrients, which is a broad term for all those weird chemicals that fight disease, including turning the pathways back on cancer development, improving the regulation of blood sugar and blood glucose and also destroying or neutralising oxidants, or free radicals.”
As well as disease prevention, Professor Collins says weight loss is another area where adopting a diverse plant-based diet will highly improve outcomes.
“Another interesting study looked at the diversity of vegetable intake in people that were going into a big weight loss trial and over two years, they found people who increased the variety of their vegetables were more likely to have lost more weight and kept it off,” she says.
For those of us who struggle to do something good for ourselves now for outcomes that might not make their presence felt for years, Professor Collins points to a “really exciting Australian study” that showed that eating vegetables and fruit actually makes you happier.
Charting more than 12,000 Australian adults from 2007 to 2013, the University of Queensland study surveyed them three times over that period, and those who increased their intake of fruit and vegetables showed increased predictors of happiness, life satisfaction and a sense of wellbeing.
These benefits were experienced within 24 months and showed the increase in happiness, life satisfaction and wellbeing was equivalent to the increased gain of somebody who went from being unemployed to being employed, in terms of self worth.
“So whether it’s about feeling better or changing your trajectory of health disease risk in the long term, or anything in between – managing your weight, dropping your blood pressure or lowering your cholesterol or risk of type 2 diabetes – then eating more vegetables and fruit is a safe, easy, risk-free way to put yourself on a pathway to feeling better and being healthier.”
To assist people on their quest to a healthier diet, Professor Collins and her team have created The Healthy Eating Quiz which allows you to rate the nutritional value of your diet in a free online five-minute quiz.
Says Collins: “You score points for the greater diversity you have in each of the core healthy items of vegetables and fruit, grains, dairy products, lean sources of protein and vegetarian alternatives. You receive your own personalised feedback report and then if you get a low score, especially for vegetables and fruit, it’s pretty obvious as to the next steps you should take.”
This article by Zoe Meunier originally appeared on goodfood.com.au