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Another study touts the health benefits of a plant-focused diet combined with some amount of regular fasting between meals. Westend61/Getty Images
  • New research suggests that adopting a diet high in legumes, nuts, and whole grains and low in red and processed meats combined with some amount of fasting can improve longevity.
  • The traditional western diet, which is high in animal protein, processed food, and refined sugars, is often shown as contributing to chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • According to this most recent study, adopting this healthier eating pattern early in life could add up to a decade to the average lifespan, but individuals of any age could benefit from these changes.

A few simple tweaks to your diet and a little intermittent fasting might hold the key to living longer.

Switching from a typical Western diet high in animal protein, processed food, and refined sugars to an “optimal diet” high in legumes, nuts, and whole grains and low in red and processed meats, combined with periodic fasting, could extend your lifespan by over a decade if started at age 20, a new meta-analysis of existing dietary research in the journal Cell suggests.

“We explored the link between nutrients, fasting, genes, and longevity in short-lived species, and connected these links to clinical and epidemiological studies in primates and humans — including centenarians,” author Dr. Valter Longo, PhD, USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology said in a press release. “By adopting an approach based on over a century of research, we can begin to define a longevity diet that represents a solid foundation for nutritional recommendations and for future research.”

And it’s never too late to start. Even switching from a Western-style diet at age 60 increased average lifespans by more than eight years.

“While for many, this may seem like a groundbreaking study, for me, this is a confirmation,” said Dana Ellis Hunnes Ph.D., MPH, a clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, who was not involved in the analysis. “But, that’s a really great thing! We want confirmation of positive and healthful results, not flip-flopping.”

There’s no single special “longevity diet,” the researchers found, but rather a set of fundamental principles that appear associated with extended lifespan and health and few side effects.

These include any diets with mid to high carbohydrates composition but low protein intake “that is mostly plant-based but includes regular consumption of pesco-vegetarian-derived proteins,” the authors write.

For instance, among long-lived populations, Okinawans consumed a diet consisting of only 1 percent animal protein and very little fat consumption. However, evaluations of diets among a variety of other long-lived populations showed that taking in around 30 percent of one’s energy from fat was perfectly healthy and perhaps even protective.

“The high circulating fat content does not appear to have the pro-aging effects,” the researchers wrote. Furthermore, a very low protein diet “may instead contribute to lean body mass loss and frailty” among people over 65.

So it’s essential to tailor your “longevity diet” to your age, needs, and preferences.

The researchers also looked at different types of fasting and how that can factor into a longer lifespan.

One takeaway was that it was better to restrict all of the day’s meals to an 11- or 12-hour period — so no more midnight snacking.

In addition, periodically fasting or following a fasting-mimicking diet (in which one drastically reduces normal caloric intake every three or four months may provide additional improvements to longevity.

“Fasting isn’t starving oneself; it is just giving the cells a break from all the body processes involved in eating and metabolizing,” Dr. Mary Valvano, MD, a board certified doctor in Emergency Medicine and Lifestyle Medicine, told Healthline. “Even just 12 hours of that kind of a break seems to have an impact. It can be done by planning the last meal at six p.m. and the next meal no sooner than six a.m., nicely overlapping with sleep. It underscores the importance of avoiding the evening snacking that is habitual for many.”

“The ‘eat more veggies and get some exercise’ theory that docs have promoted for years is really a short version of what [Dr. Longo] continues to prove in study after study,” she said. “What we eat changes our genes. Our genes control aging. When we eat changes our genes. Fasting can change our genes and delay aging.”