The same study looked at the specific foods that can *increase* your risk of death.

By Jaime Milan
Updated March 08, 2019

Everyone wants to live longer—and eating a healthy diet is one of the surest ways to cut back on risks of heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and other things that can lead to an early grave.

Eating poorly exacerbates those risks. There’s compelling evidence showing weight cycling (also called yo-yo dieting) and eating ultra-processed foods can up your risk.

But there are dozens of ways to eat "healthy," from low-carb, to whole food, to paleo, to vegan. So what has the best effects, long term? A new study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health finds that eating plant-based may be the key to adding the most candles to your birthday cake.

This info isn’t actually all that surprising, since previous studies have shown eating a vegan or plant-based diet can help reduce your risk of heart disease. But this study from Harvard wanted to examine how changes to diet could influence all of a person’s risks of dying, no matter how old they were or what their diet looked like before. 

Researchers developed three diet scales that looked at overall plant-based food consumption, healthy plant-based food consumption (focusing primarily on whole grains, veggies, fruit, and nuts), and the less healthy plant-based food consumption, where people ate more fruit juice, refined grains, potatoes, and sugary snacks (here are 10 vegan food that aren't healthy, and swaps we recommend instead).

 The study followed 47,983 women and 25,737 men with an average age of 64 years old and no previous histories of cancer or heart disease. Researchers tracked their eating habits for 12 years, and found deaths from all causes were 8 percent lower in people with the biggest increase in an overall plant-based diet; 10 percent lower in those with the biggest increase in a healthy plant-based diet; and 11 percent higher in those with the biggest increase in an unhealthy plant-based diet. 

Lead author of the study, Megu Y. Baden, M.D., Ph.D., said in a meeting report from the American Heart Association, “Over a period of time, consuming more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, while decreasing your intake of refined grains, sweets and desserts, and animal foods such as animal fat meat, and miscellaneous animal-based foods, may lower your risk of death from heart disease and other causes.”

More Plant-Based stories from Cooking Light:

 And it really doesn’t take much to achieve that 10-point increase on the healthy plant-based diet scale. You can lower your death risk by doing the following things each day: 

  • Swap out one serving of refined grains for whole grains
  • Eat an extra serving of fruit
  • Eat an extra serving of vegetables
  • Drink one less sugary beverage 

What’s interesting about this study is that participants didn’t always eat healthy; in fact, they started increasing their intake of plant-based foods in middle age. And the healthy plant foods still increased their longevity, while processed foods and sugary drinks lowered it.

“Not all plant-based diets are equal, but boosting the intake of high-quality plant-based foods over time lowers the risk of death even among people who started off with poor-quality diets,” said Baden.

The bottom line: The study wasn’t randomized, so a cause-and-effect relationship can’t be directly established. Still, we believe adding high-quality plant foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to your diet can only be beneficial to your health in the long run.