How Much Longer Do Fruit and Vegetable Eaters Live?

Fruits, Veggies and Longevity- How many minutes per mouthful?

Probably the least controversial advice in all of nutrition is to eat more fruits and vegetables, which is to say, eat more plants, since the term vegetable basically means all parts of the plant that aren’t fruit. We’ve known that eating more fruits and vegetables helps us live longer, but a new study helped us see exactly how much longer (featured in my video Fruits, Veggies, and Longevity: How Many Minutes Per Mouthful?).

Researchers in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition followed people and their diets over time to create a dose-response curve between fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality. Subjects who consumed five fruits and vegetables a day lived an extra three years compared to their non-plant-eating counterparts.

Compared to those eating five servings of fruits and veggies a day, those who ate four lost a month off their lifespan. Those who ate three servings lost three months. Then the curve started going off the cliff. At two servings a day, subjects lived seven months shorter, and at one serving a day, practically a year and a half, at half a serving a day, subjects lived nearly two years less, and at zero servings subjects lost three years.

This study mostly looked at people in their 50’s and 60’s. Is it too late by our 70’s? No. Women in their 70’s with the most carotenoid phytonutrients in their bloodstream were twice as likely to survive five years than those with the lowest. This means doubling one’s likelihood of survival merely by eating some more fruits and vegetables.

In a study out of Taiwan, researchers concluded that spending just 50 cents a day on fruits or vegetables could buy people about a 10% drop in mortality. That’s quite a bargain. Imagine if there was a drug that—without side-effects—could lower our risk of death 10%. How much do you think drug companies would charge? Probably more than 50 cents.

The more plants we eat, the more antioxidants we get. Why is this important? See The Power of NO and the Mitochondrial Theory of Aging. Or in terms of specific diseases, Food Antioxidants and Cancer and Food Antioxidants, Stroke, and Heart Disease.

Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score to see how one might maximize the intake of protective foods.

Nuts are technically just a dried fruit with (typically) a single seed;  so, no wonder Nuts May Help Prevent Death.

Botanically speaking beans are fruit too. Check out Increased Lifespan From Beans.

Also, the more healthy foods we eat, the less room there is for less healthy foods:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Richard Giles / Flickr

  • stefan seya

    What a bout fruitarian Mike Dr Morse

  • Dasaniyum

    There seems to be diminishing benefits as one eats more servings of plants. But I’ll still take those three years. There’s a lot I can do with three years.

    • thorn324

      Dasaniyum, what’s the basis/evidence for your writing, “There seems to be diminishing benefits …?” Could you provide some source for that, or is that just a sense you have (and why, therefore, you used the word “seems”). I suspect many who follow Dr. Greger’s work would be interested in your response. Much appreciated!

      • Dasaniyum

        “Compared to those eating five servings of fruits and veggies a day,
        those who ate four lost a month off their lifespan. Those who ate three
        servings lost three months. Then the curve started going off the cliff.
        At two servings a day, subjects lived seven months shorter, and at one
        serving a day, practically a year and a half, at half a serving a day,
        subjects lived nearly two years less, and at zero servings subjects lost
        three years.”

        Sorry if I confused you but I was trying to refer to the marginal benefits in terms of lifespan as one eats more and more servings of plants. Here, the marginal benefit decreases with every extra serving of plants eaten. I use the word “seems” because I’m not really sure if the results will be the same if someone else performed the same experiment somewhere else. Also, it looks like the experiment used questionaires so it may not be entirely accurate. But generally, more plants eaten = longer life expectancy

        • thorn324

          Thanks for the clarification, Dasaniyum. Very thoughtful of you! If it is true that >5 per day doesn’t lead to greater longevity, I wonder if the quality of that longevity may be increased. Btw, I agree completely that accuracy in this study may be somewhat iffy given the use of questionnaires: total recall (at least wholly accurate recall) may exist only in movie titles! But surely the general principle is sound regarding benefits of at least 5/day. Here’s hoping we all make best use of those three extra years.

      • largelytrue

        It’s in the text of Greger’s post, right?

        …Then the curve started going off the cliff…

      • Tom Goff

        The AJCN article that Dr Greger refers to also concludes that: “FV consumption >5 servings/d does not provide considerable added benefits with respect to survival. “

  • Psych MD

    Harvard’s Meat and Mortality Studies video is highlighted above. There are some interestingly conflicting statements coming from Harvard. In the most recent Harvard School of Public Health newsletter they discuss fish consumption. The gist of the article is not whether one should consume fish at all but rather if twice a week is often enough it obtain maximum benefit.

    • 2abner

      why bother with mercury-laden food when one can get at the very least the same amount of benefit for the reason people are told to eat fish, by consuming whole flaxseed grinded right before ingestion (3 tablespoons = maintenance dose)..

    • largelytrue

      That data are naturally ‘conflicting’, I’d expect, due to nonlinearity in the landscape. What benefit are they quoting for fish? Usually it’s the (long-chain) n-3 PUFA for CVD, and I’d hope that you personally know a lot more about evaluating the other main claim of DHA/EPA for mental function by the nature of your apparent specialization.

      The benefit for CVD is generally grounded in short term (decade long) studies and the favored mechanistic explanations often deal with a short term mechanism on advanced plaques as well. Statistical measures of aggregated benefits naturally tend to emphasize what helps the sickest people, so it’s quite easy for the actual benefit to be grounded mostly in moderating the damage done by a diet gone wrong, particularly when wrong diet is common in the population.

      A lot of things that help high-risk groups are dubious or demonstrably harmful through other pathways in low-risk groups, which is part of the rationale for distinguishing between secondary prevention and primary prevention in the first place and at the very least.

  • Kitsy Hahn

    Has anybody done a study on people who knock off a lot more than the recommended amount of veggies and fruits a day but who also eat a little (organic or whatever) animal protein….say, two or three times a week?

    • 2tsaybow

      One of the most interesting and probably accurate responses I’ve heard came from Dan Buetner on the Bill Maher show. He said what he has been told by the physicians and researchers he has worked with on his Blue Zone project is that we need to learn to think of animal products the same way we do radiation, and from that perspective you need to decide how much can tolerate in your daily diet.
      The longest lived populations ate animal products no more that 5 times a month.

  • RJ Jones

    i follow every word you say already, but i am buying your book to support your fabulous gift to all of us. of course, my wife and i will read it just in case we missed something! peace, rj

  • ron

    What is considered a Serving?

    • Freedom2131

      For an adult, it is normally one medium-sized fruit, 1/2 cup of veges, or 1 cup of leafy greens. Standard serving sizes are not very large.

  • perlis

    If I have understood the argument here, it seems prey to the “healthy subjects fallacy”. That is, it may well be that those who eat more fruit and veggies are simply more health-conscious in general and thus also get more exercise, meditate more, and so on. A controlled study is really needed to nail this down.

    • largelytrue

      People generally get into squishing the balloon on this point. When they see an argument for exercise they say it’s maybe the diet instead, and when they see an argument for diet they say it’s maybe the exercise instead. At that point in the dilemma you tend either toward apathy about the status quo or toward a comprehensive strategy for health promotion, I’d wager.

      To look into the criticism a little deeper, do you seriously think that older Americans have been meditating in droves for decades? This is before we even consider the putative benefits of meditation for longevity, some of which may actually be related to food intake in a toxic food environment. Also, the multivariate analysis in the dose-response study plainly controlled for reported physical activity, at least, as well as smoking and other factors.

      Try to read the study first, at least skimming the tables of results and baseline characteristics. It really helps to understand what is likely to be a legitimate criticism of the citation and what is not.

      • perlis

        You are preaching to the choir — I am a believer here: fruit and veggies all the way. But I still think studies should not be touted to show things that they don’t. BTW, these were Swedish subjects, not Americans, right? And I haven’t a clue how much they meditate or exercise. Finally, this was a self-report design, which is always a bit uncertain — and the paper does not even state what percentage of people contacted actually returned the questionnaire (they only say how many returned it), which I thought was a key item to take into account. It may be that those who were in poorest health did not bother — or maybe those in the best health. The point of a study is to find out, not to simply leave us with good feelings about trends we already believed.

        • largelytrue

          Yes, gross error in my comment! I don’t know how I got to typing ‘American’. I still suspect you won’t find them engaging in tons of meditation (what type, by the way?), due to culture and age. Self-report is always a bit uncertain, but you don’t really see another type of prospective study on fruit and vegetable consumption, do you? Ecological studies have their own problems, and it’s not like you can actually get big data on long-term questions without resorting to methods that are in some sense soft.

          I understand that the cohort is not a random sample of the female population, but you still need to explain why when controlling for reported exercise etc. in this sample, fruit and vegetable consumption showed this strong, plausible, steady, plateauing association with survival. Residual confounding is always a concern but when you control for most of the confounding through an appropriate model, it’s less likely to be substantial in comparison with the effect of the independent variable.

          This study doesn’t work in a vacuum to evidence the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption, and how great or mediocre they may be at various levels of intake. Produce consumption has very plausible connections with mortality in the first place, and this study gives us some clue as to how large the effect can be in some populations. It supports prior hypotheses about produce consumption and mortality, but it also helps to constrain and modify them. I wouldn’t say its purpose here is obviously to confirm our preconceptions and no more. Science has to operate on preconceptions, though it requires that we not cling to them too hard.

  • Dennis Kidd

    Do you have any suggestions on a good Calorie/Nutrition Value Tracker app for smartphones?

    • Thea

      Dennis: While I haven’t used it myself, lots of people in the NutritionFacts community speak very highly of cronometer. And you can see that they have a mobile app version of their application:
      https://cronometer.com/

  • Sam Peters

    I am a third year journalism student at Boston University and am writing a piece about the potential healthiness of veganism. Wondering if any medical/nutrition professionals could comment on this topic. Thank you!

  • Tom Goff

    I wonder if the observed benefits come as a result of the greater fruit and vegetable consumption or because they displace other (less healthy) foods in the diet. Perhaps it is both.

    • Thea

      Tom: It’s my guess that it’s both. It seems to me that there have been several NutritionFacts videos (and information elsewhere) that has tried to tease out this very question. And I think the answer is both. In other words, all else being equal, eating fruits and veggies has a positive effect on our health. And eating meat, dairy and eggs has negative effect in and of itself, all else being equal. I suppose it may not be possible to truly separate the two questions/effects. But if I were a betting woman, I’d lay money on it being both.

      • Tom Goff

        Thanks, Thea. Yes, that seems to be Campbell’s view as well if I remember his comments in “The China Study” correctly. We certainly know some things about the adverse effects of saturated fats, trans fats and refined sugars etc which suggest that reducing consumption of those would provide benefits.

  • Laura

    It would be very interesting to learn more about the quality of life for each group. Did the group consuming the most fruits and veggies also have a better quality of life?

  • Baguazan Loshu

    For those with a chronic desease such as cancer which feeds on fructose, is eating fruits still a good idea? Does the benefits outweigh the dangers, or does the danger outweigh the benefits? Has there any research been done on this subject?

    • Thea

      Bagauzan: From what I can tell, people’s fears about fruit and cancer do not seem to bear fruit (ha, ha). I can think of a couple of videos on this site which found that a fruit actually fights cancer, not promotes it. I remember one video on strawberries fighting throat cancer, and I think I remember something about dates and colon cancer? Here’s one example video that goes back to volume 2 on cancer and berries:
      http://nutritionfacts.org/video/cancer-fighting-berries-2/

      The story may be more complicated than I am suggesting. Perhaps there are certain kind of whole fruits which contribute to certain kinds of cancer. But I don’t remember seeing any evidence of that.

      Dr. Greger recently did a series on fruit, exploring the overall question of whether fruit is healthful or not and how much a day is OK to have. Here’s one video in that series:
      http://nutritionfacts.org/video/how-much-fruit-is-too-much/

      Does that help?

  • Bob

    I’m confused. It was stated on page 3 to add Fish to a vegan lifestyle (due to the omega 3) for a 43% lower colon ca risk. Vol 58 No. 2 summer 2015. Living with Cancer. Is a vegan llife still better?

    • MarthaLA

      Fish is still animal flesh and carries with it the same cholesterol, inflammation, etc. as any other animal flesh. The only thing it is touted for is Omega 3 fatty acids, and those can be obtained from ground flax seed or whole chia seed without those accompaniments and without all the contaminants from today’s polluted waters.

  • Sylvia Woon

    Vegans live 12 too 23 years longer than non vegan .. depending on what age they went vegan at. They also live much better.