If you could live longer by changing the way you eat, would you? This question has long seemed like a rhetorical one, but researchers have found that reducing just six risk factors in the next 15 years could prevent 37 million premature deaths due to chronic respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. It is possible to eat for a lower risk of mortality, and it is possible to do so in a way that allows you to still eat delicious food.

The six risk factors for early mortality identified by Professor Majid Ezzati from Imperial College London and his colleagues include:

  • Tobacco use (smoking and oral tobacco use)
  • Alcohol use
  • Salt intake
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes

Of these six factors, four can be almost completely addressed by diet, and tackling just one of those alone can result in a reduction of risk in the other three. So which factor holds the key to reducing the risk of early mortality?

Obesity

Obesity is defined in adults as a body-mass index of 35 or higher. Body-mass index, or BMI, is the ratio between a person’s height and weight. A person who carries the majority of their weight around their middle (as an “apple-shape”) has the highest risk of early mortality and is more likely to be classified as obese. Pear-shaped people, those with the weight distributed mainly around their hips and thighs, are also at risk.

The statistics surrounding obesity have been well-publicized in recent years as rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity in children have soared.

  • In the United States, one in three adults are classified as being obese
  • Obesity worldwide doubled between 1991 and 1998
  • Childhood obesity has doubled, and adolescent obesity quadrupled, from 1982 to 2012
  • Rates of Type 2 diabetes, which occurs as the body develops resistance to insulin often in response to obesity, has increased from just under 26 million Americans in 2010 to just over 29 million in 2012
  • Every year, 1.7 million new cases of diabetes are diagnosed, but an estimated eight million cases go undiagnosed

Addressing just this one risk factor may, in fact, be the key to all of the other ones. In this case, healthy eating isn’t only about losing weight, although that is a happy side effect. If you or someone you love is obese, here are a few ways to start a plan to reduce your risk of early mortality.

Change the way you think about diet

One of the hardest parts about healthy eating to address obesity and to reduce mortality is the sense of deprivation. When starting a journey to healthy eating, most people recommend eliminating everything unhealthy in one fell swoop. Others might recommend substitutions, like fat- or sugar-free options. The key to healthy eating is not saying “no” to everything and thinking of life as one prolonged diet. The key is to think of diet as it is defined by the dictionary: a usual plan for eating. In this manner, diet can mean food that is delicious, nourishing, and healthy, not a list of all the things you cannot have.

The Mediterranean diet, for example, focuses on whole grains, fresh seafood, an abundance of olive oil, and a daily glass of red wine. The Mayo Clinic diet doesn’t restrict the amount of fresh vegetables and fruits, so you can eat as much as you want. Even Weight Watchers, a program that fits a more common interpretation of the word “diet,” focuses on changing the way in which you eat rather than just targeting all of the things you cannot have.

While it is true that you will need to make changes to what you eat, and you will have to say no to some things, just changing your idea that diet is a daily, usual plan of healthy nourishing food instead of a period of deprivation can get you on the right path.

Learn how to meal plan

If you are used to wandering the aisles of the grocery store aimlessly, throwing whatever looks good into your cart, this is a great place to start. Meal planning is a vital skill when you begin to take control of what you eat. Because obesity is a difficult issue to tackle, and because there is a high relapse rate, it is important to stock your pantry and make a plan for meals and snacks that are easy, at hand, and healthy. If you have children, involve them in the planning so that they are more inclined to be supportive.

Sit down once a week and figure out what you would like to eat for the week. Use Pinterest, food blogs, and friends for suggestions for quick, healthy weeknight meals and snacks. Incorporate the use of a meal planning app for shopping lists and recipe suggestions, too. Then head to the grocery store, armed with a list. And stick to it.

It must be said: eat your fruits and vegetables

Just five servings of fruits and vegetables a day lowers your risk of early mortality from a variety of causes, and yet the vast majority of adults and children don’t reach that minimum amount daily. In a 2014 analysis of 16 studies with over 833,000 study participants, U.S. and Chinese researchers found that:

[R]isk of death from all causes was reduced by 5% for each additional daily serving of fruit and vegetables, while risk of cardiovascular death was reduced by [4%] for each additional daily serving of fruit and vegetables.”

It helps to know what a serving size is for each fruit or vegetable, just as it helps to choose more vegetables than fruit and make sure they are organic whenever possible.

If you cannot address all six risk factors for early mortality, reducing the risk of obesity is an important first step towards that. If you could make one important change today, which change would it be and why?

Image by Tim Green via Flickr