A Healthy Diet Can Increase Longevity

Too much dairy and too many sweets boost your odds of dying younger

It’s never too late to boost your chances of living until 100. New research suggests that eating a healthy diet, even when in your 70s, can help you live longer and better. Conversely, certain unhealthy eating habits increase the risk of death.

According to the study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the leading causes of death in the U.S. today are chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes that are largely impacted by one’s diet. While certain foods can help protect one’s health, others increase the risk of disease and death.

In order to determine which eating habits harm people the most, researchers at the University of Maryland assessed the dietary patterns and health of 2,582 adults between the ages of 70 and 79 over a 10-year period. People who followed a healthy diet comprised mainly of fruit, vegetables, poultry, fish, whole grains and low-fat dairy had the lowest risk of death, after accounting for other factors known to impact longevity, like race, education, physical activity, smoking and consuming too many calories. The study also found that people who ate generous amounts of high-fat dairy or sugar carried the highest risk of death.

During the 10-year study, 739 participants died. Those who ate large amounts -- roughly 17 percent of their daily calories -- of ice cream, cheese, and whole or two-percent milk and yogurt were 40 percent more likely to pass away than those in the healthy diet group. Similarly, people who regularly consumed sweets and desserts had a 37 percent higher risk of death. On average, people in this group spent 25 percent of their calories on sugary treats. Unexpectedly, a diet high in red meat was not linked to a greater risk of death. However, according to the study’s lead author, Amy L. Anderson, Ph.D., a researcher in the University of Maryland’s department of nutrition and food science, this is not the first study to suggest that red meat might not be as bad as we think. Still, Anderson emphasizes that those who most closely followed the current dietary guidelines had the lowest risk of disease and mortality. They also reported more years of good health than those who followed less-healthy eating habits.

To get a sense of what a diet high in dairy looks like, a sedentary 35-year-old woman who is 5’4” and 140 pounds needs about 1887 calories a day. All it takes to spend 17 percent of her daily calories on dairy are two slices of cheddar cheese and one cup of two-percent milk. In fact, eating that much dairy will actually put her closer to 19 percent of her daily calories.

This is very depressing news for me. Even though my diet is filled with fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, fish and whole grains, the one thing I allow myself without guilt is full-fat dairy. I use half-and-half in my coffee every morning, and eat cheese every day. I sprinkle it on my salads, melt it on my sandwiches and garnish roasted squash with it. I assumed it could be my one peccadillo. But now, after reading this study, I’m not so sure. Even sadder, being equipped with this knowledge doesn’t make me want to change -- which makes me wonder, is my love of cheese worth going to the grave for? It’s definitely not how I’d want to be remembered in my obituary. So with three days left before the end of the year, perhaps I’ve found my New Year’s resolution. Here’s to a less cheesy 2011.

What food would you be unable to give up? Chime in below.

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