Following a more environmentally sustainable diet is linked to a longer life, according to new research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The new study looked at how closely people’s diets followed guidelines established by a group of 37 scientists and health experts called the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health. This group’s recommendations note that feeding a projected global population of 10 billion by the year 2050 will require “transforming eating habits, improving food production and reducing food waste.” The EAT-Lancet diet includes target amounts of different categories of foods — lots of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes, and less meat, sugar, and saturated fat. These recommendations were based on the effects of food production, processing, and transportation on the climate, water use, biodiversity, phosphorus and nitrogen use, and acidification, as noted in a press release on the new study.
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The researchers used data from 22,421 participants in what’s known as the Malmö Diet and Cancer cohort, which involved tracking the diet and health outcomes of people in one area of Sweden. Participants were not given dietary recommendations as part of the study — researchers simply looked at what they ate over time, along with health outcomes. Each participant’s diet was scored based on how closely it followed recommended levels of 14 different food components, as defined in the EAT-Lancet diet. For each component, participants received 0 to 3 points, for a total of up to 42 points. Participants were then divided into five groups of equal size based on their overall diet score.
During an average follow-up period of 20 years, the researchers found that the group with the highest adherence to the EAT-Lancet diet — those with a score of 23 or higher — fared better than the group with the lowest score (13 or lower) in several different areas of health. After adjusting for factors other than diet that are known to affect health outcomes — including smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and body-mass index (BMI, a measure of body weight that takes height into account) — the researchers found that the group with the highest EAT-Lancet diet score was 25% less likely to die of all causes, 24% less likely to die of cancer, and 32% less likely to die of cardiovascular causes.
“Even in cases where the study participants’ dietary habits were far from the targets for the EAT-Lancet diet, we observed a clear difference in total mortality already when participants were halfway to the target,” said study author Anna Stubbendorff, a doctoral student in the nutritional epidemiology research team at the Department of Clinical Sciences in Malmö, in the press release. “The results clearly show that the diet can be linked to a lower risk of premature death.” In other words, you don’t have to choose between your own health and the health of the planet when deciding what to eat — more often than not, the two types of health go hand in hand.