Nutrition for Longevity: Can Plant-Based Diets Reduce Mortality Risk?

A new study finds that eating different types of healthful diets, which includes a focus on whole plant foods, can be the best nutrition for longevity.

People choose what they eat based on a variety of different reasons, from taste to health benefits, but what if the way you eat significantly changed how long you live? A new study followed four diets, the Healthy Eating Index 2015, Alternative Mediterranean Diet, Healthful Plant Based Diet Index, and Alternative Healthy Eating Index. While these diets are all slightly different, the study found that people who focus on any of these four diets had a lower risk of mortality (death) during the study period. The common thread these diets shared: they each focus on whole plant-based foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. The variability in the diets shows flexibility in diet options, pointing out that there is no one correct way to eat healthy for human longevity. While there are many ways to support your health, the study shows your eating patterns have one of the biggest effects on your risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory disease, which can in turn lengthen your lifespan. 

Swiss Chard Salad with Oranges and Citrus Vinaigrette

What Does Longevity Mean?

Longevity is defined as a long life or the amount of time you live past the average age of death. We all wish for a life free from chronic disease, in which we live longer, more fulfilled lives. Living those extra years means more memories and time spent doing the things you love with your loved ones. So, how do we achieve this longevity? One way is by changing your diet to reduce your risk of chronic disease killers, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. 

Texas Vegan Chili with Sorghum

Human Longevity and Plant-Based Diets

This prospective cohort study followed the dietary habits of 75,000 women from the Nurses Cohort Study ranging in age from 30-55 years old, and 44,000 men ranging in age from 40-75 years old over 36 years of follow up. All of the participants did not previously report having cardiovascular disease, cancer, or diabetes. Their dietary patterns were collected using a food frequency questionnaire and were then scored based on highest to lowest adherence to any of the four eating patterns. They were then placed into five different cohorts, ranging from highest to lowest adherence of their eating patterns to one of the four diet patterns. Follow-ups on eating patterns were administered yearly. The association between dietary eating patterns and total mortality were examined to analyze the risk.

Among the four eating patterns were the Healthy Eating Index 2015, Alternative Mediterranean Diet, Healthful Plant Based Diet Index, and Alternative Healthy Eating Index. The Healthy Eating Index 2015 follows U.S. nutritional guidelines emphasizing a plant-based, low added sugar, and low unhealthy fat diet. The Healthful Plant Based Diet Index focuses on unprocessed plant foods, while the Alternative Healthy Eating Index focuses on foods and nutrients associated with a lower risk of chronic disease. Finally, the Mediterranean Diet focuses on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and a high amount of healthy fats. While all these diets are slightly unique, they all focus on eating a plant-based diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. 

The findings of the study showed that those placed in the highest diet adherence group of any of the four dietary patterns had a 20% reduction in mortality compared with the lowest adherence group. This means that the people who followed these diets more closely had a lower risk of mortality, compared to people who did not follow the diets very closely. The study also showed that diet changes over time can reduce your risk of dying from a chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory diseases. Subjects who improved their diet by 25% over the course of the study reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by 6-13% and cancer risks by 7-18%. The associations between dietary patterns and mortality were also not significantly different between races and ethnicities.

Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal with Pistachios

Nutrition for Longevity

This study shows that you may lengthen your lifespan with a healthy diet, and even if you haven’t been eating the most healthful diet, it is never too late to adopt new eating habits. Changing your eating patterns now can have large effects on reducing your risks of developing chronic disease and increasing your longevity. It also shows that there is not one correct diet, but flexibility in dietary choices based on your preference, health needs, and cultural traditions. What remains consistent through all the dietary patterns is the encouraged consumption of plant-based foods. Choosing lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can lead to a longer health-filled life, free of chronic conditions. Incorporating lots of color and variety can make plant based eating fun and tasty. Try new recipes and find what you like; your body will thank you later. 


Written by Ashley Teltow, Dietetic Intern with Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

Main image: Kale Tofu Vegan Bowl with Turmeric Hemp Hearts Topping, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

Read more about the study here: Shan Z, Wang F, Li Y, et al. Healthy Eating Patterns and Risk of Total and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2023;183(2):142-153. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2022.6117

For more plant-based research updates, read the following: 

IPCC Report: Diet Change Vital to Reduce Climate Impact
What Diet is the Worst for the Environment?
Many Health and Eco Impacts of Food Choices
Eat More Plant Proteins for Longevity

To learn more about eating a plant-based diet, check out the following: 

How to Become a Vegetarian: 13 Dietitian Tips
6 Ways to Conserve Water with Your Diet
Top 9 Stealth Health Diet Strategies
9 Rules for a Healthy Vegan Diet

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