Five ways to better your health and increase your lifespan through food.

By Rozalynn S. Frazier
June 15, 2021
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When it comes to living a long, healthy life, there are many factors to consider. Some we can control, others not so much. One area that's a key to promoting longevity—and one you do have some influence over—is your diet. "Eating healthy is an important part of being well and longevity," says Maya Eady McCarthy, MD, a pediatric hospitalist at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston. "Nutritious, high-quality foods are key in order to provide our bodies with the fuel it needs to function at its best."

Now that doesn't mean you can only nosh on kale for the next 40 or 50 years, but it does mean you should approach healthy eating habits with consistency. "You'll benefit most from what you do the majority of the time, over time," explains Cynthia Sass, RD, CSSD, a Los Angeles–based sports and performance nutritionist. "So if your diet consists of whole, nutrient-rich foods 80 percent of the time, that 80 percent has a greater impact than the 20 percent that may be less optimal." Here, our eating pros offer up five ways to make the longevity diet work for you.

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1 Power Up on Produce

To be exact, eat five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables daily, in a rainbow of colors, advises Sass. "In addition to vitamins, minerals and fiber, veggies and fruits provide anti-inflammatory antioxidants and bioactive compounds; and a higher intake supports healthy immune function, mental health, sleep, and disease prevention," she says. Research suggests that 10 servings, though, might be even better. A meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, reported that doing so could help to prevent nearly 7.8 million premature deaths.

Leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard greens, and Swiss chard provide key nutrients for health and longevity, says Anthea Levi, RD, a registered dietitian at the private practice Culina Health. "Spinach contains folate—which is essential for DNA synthesis—as well as iron, a critical mineral for immune function," she says. "Berries are often touted as being an anti-aging food thanks to their high antioxidant count."   

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2 Eat More Monounsaturated Fats

Good-for-you, monounsaturated fats—like extra virgin olive oil, avocado, and nuts—are all staples in a Mediterranean Diet. "One measure of longevity often cited in research is telomere length," explains Sass. "Telomeres are caps found at the ends of chromosomes that protect DNA. When they become too short, a cell becomes old or dysfunctional. This is why shorter telomeres are associated with a lower life expectancy and an increased risk of developing chronic diseases." Sass adds that research has shown that a greater adherence to a Mediterranean Diet is linked to longevity through maintaining longer telomere length.

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3 Limit Your Red Meat Intake

There has been some debate in recent years about whether decreasing the amount of beef and pork you eat is really necessary for optimal health. Some still say yes, it's wise to cut back on it. For starters, red meat naturally contains trans fats, which are known to be highly inflammatory and increase the risk for heart disease, says Silvia Carli, RD, 1AND1 Life's registered dietitian and a certified strength and conditioning coach. Carli also notes that during the digestion of red meat, our bodies produce TMAO (triethylamine oxide), which, research has shown, is also linked to cardiovascular disease. This is especially concerning considering cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women and men—resulting in one in three deaths and one in four deaths, respectively.

Don't panic: Red meat is hardly the only source of protein you can turn to. Sass says that pulses (the umbrella term for beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas) can be a great option instead.  "This food group is tied to a lower risk chronic disease, and a plant based diet is linked to a lower risk of all causes of death," she says. Research agrees.  One study in the Southeast Asian Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health revealed that older adults who included 20 grams of beans (about 2 tablespoons) per day in their diet, had an 8 percent lower risk of dying. 

Levi also recommends fish as a high-quality protein selection. "Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel are the best source of omega-3 fatty acids, those healthy fats that help lower triglyceride levels in the blood, maintain strong cell membranes, fight inflammation, and support healthy hormones, among a million other functions," she says.

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4 Ditch Ultra-Processed and Packaged Foods

Chips. Cookies. Cheese. These types of food make up nearly 58 percent of the calories we consume—and that's not a good thing. Is it OK to treat yourself now and again? Of course. But folks who consistently eat these types of foods (think more than four servings per day) experience a 62 percent uptick in all-cause mortality. The same study also revealed that with each additional serving of processed food, all-cause mortality increased by 18 percent.

Regular consumption of ultra-processed foods can also promote inflammation in the body over time. "Chronic inflammation is associated with an increased risk of some of the leading causes of disease, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and even depression," Levi says. "This is why we always hear about eating anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods. By fighting inflammation and lowering oxidative stress in the body, these foods support healthy cells and in turn help reduce our risk of disease." 

A lower risk of disease can easily turn into a longer life. Processed foods often contain loads of sugar, which can wreak havoc on our life span. "Excess sugar is not helpful for our bodies and can lead to increased morbidity and mortality," Dr. McCarthy explains. "When consumed, our regulatory systems go into overdrive in order to avoid extreme highs and lows. When these regulatory systems are less efficient, they can lead to diseases such as diabetes mellitus, type 2, and can contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome." 

Little food swaps—like choosing fresh fruit over canned or dried fruits; making water or unsweetened tea your primary beverage instead of soda; and forgoing artificial sweeteners—can greatly help. Refined grains are not exempt either: They too can be found in processed foods. This is another reason why you want to reach for whole-food sources of carbohydrates, says Sass. In other words, your body does need carbs (they're not the enemy!), but it should be getting them from foods that naturally contain carbohydrates. These include starchy veggies, like skin-on potatoes, sweet potato, and winter squash, as well as whole grains like oats, brown rice, and quinoa, she says. "Eating whole, rather than refined grains, is linked to chronic disease protection, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke." 

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5 Go *Very* Easy on the Alcohol

"People love to cite red wine's antioxidants as an excuse for drinking, but in reality, our bodies fundamentally recognize alcohol as a toxin," says Levi. "When it comes to longevity concerns, alcohol has been shown to suppress immune function, which may lead to illness down the line." 

Research also shows that even moderate alcohol intake is associated with a heightened risk of breast cancer in women. What's more, a study in The Lancet, which analyzed the drinking habits of roughly 600,000 people, reported that higher alcohol consumption was linked with a higher rate of stroke, fatal aneurysms, heart failure, and death. And the more you drink, the more your mortality rate increases. So we're not saying you can't sip on your favorite spirit or varietal every once in a while, but being mindful of your alcohol intake is definitely key.

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