Do this, live longer. Simple, right? (Photo: Getty Images)
Most of us try to eat right and exercise regularly, but we’re only human. And if your diet isn’t as good as it should be, the idea of radically altering what you eat can be intimidating — even though it can be better your health.
But, according to new research out of the U.K., making just small changes to your diet may have a significant impact on your health.
For the study, researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine analyzed food diaries of 1,571 adults to estimate how modifications to their current diets could help them meet dietary guidelines issued by the World Health Organization and impact their overall health.
Here’s what they discovered: Making small tweaks to diets could increase a person’s life expectancy by eight months and also reduce diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent. Those tweaks included eating more of some things, and less of others.
- animal products (especially in the form of red meat)
- savory snacks like chips
- cereals (whole grains)
Researchers discovered that those little tweaks could reduce the odds a person would develop heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, helping them to live longer, healthier lives.
“Relatively small changes in our diets, say a bit less meat and dairy and a bit more fruit and vegetables, can have tremendous benefits for our health and for the health of our planet,” lead researcher Alan Dangour, PhD, head of the nutrition group at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, tells Yahoo Health.
Registered dietitian Joy Dubost, PhD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, stresses that small, productive changes are key to reap the benefits. “For example, some people may think removing gluten is going to make a big impact, but we know that’s not the case unless you have a gluten intolerance,” she tells Yahoo Health.
However, she says adding a few more fruits and vegetables to your daily diet can definitely make a positive change in your overall health because they’re lower in calories, higher in nutrients and fiber, and contain non-essential nutrients like antioxidants which can help prevent chronic diseases.
Research has repeatedly shown that regularly eating fruits and vegetables is crucial for good health. A massive study published in the journal BMJ last year found that eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day can significantly lower a person’s mortality, and a study from the University College of London found that people who ate seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables had a 42 percent lower risk of death at any point in time than those who ate less than one serving a day. That research, coupled with the new findings, suggests that every little bit counts.
But where does cereal factor in? Dubost clarifies that nutritionists think of “cereal” as refined or whole grains, i.e. not just breakfast cereal, and notes that people don’t usually get enough of them (or the fiber that often comes with it) in their diet.
Additional recent research backs up the link between increased grain consumption and a longer lifespan: A new study from Harvard University published in the journal BMC Medicine found that people who ate cereal rich in dietary fiber every day had a 19 percent reduced risk of death compared to those who didn’t.
Related: 25 Of The Best Foods For Fiber
While Dangour’s findings suggest that we should cut back a little on red meat, Dubost stresses that red meat as a whole isn’t bad for you. Instead, she says it’s important to monitor portion size, opt for leaner red meats, and make sure you’re avoiding over-processed meats like lunch meats and sausages.
And, of course, there’s the issue of unhealthy snacks. Nutrition and health expert Joy Bauer, RDN, founder of Nourish Snacks, points out that, while having a treat here and there is probably fine, snacking on chips and other unhealthy foods can quickly turn into a dangerous cycle. “They’re addictive and we keep going and going. Before you know it we’ve gobbled down 1,000 calories and an excessive amount of sugar, salt and starchy carbs (depending on what you’re munching),” she tells Yahoo Health. “That’s when we pack on the pounds and increase our risks for dangerous conditions like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.”
Of course, knowing that you should incorporate better foods into your diet and actually doing them are two different things. To get better at making these little swaps, Dubost recommends keeping more fruits and vegetables on-hand in your house and chopping them up in advance so it’s not such an effort to grab them when you’re hungry or want a snack.
If you’re interested in cutting back on your meat consumption, try to incorporate other sources of protein like soy, nuts, and seeds on a day when you would otherwise have red meat, Dubost recommends. And finally, look for the words “whole grain” on ingredients lists when you buy cereal, pasta, and bread.
“Once you start to incorporate these changes into your daily routine, it gets easier,” she says. And, as research has shown, it can make a big impact on your overall health.