While it may be an oversimplification, the metaphor of the body being a vehicle and nutrition being like fuel is a good one. The way a body, especially an aging one, performs often comes down to the type of food being used to fuel it.
When viewed through the lens of lifespan, diet plays an active role in health and quality of life. Nutrition and aging are inevitably linked, and breaking down barriers to healthy eating while forming healthy habits may add years to your life.
Read on for tips on how to eat and live longer, including lessons learned from the world’s longest-living populations.
Nutrition and Aging: What’s the Link?
While many lifestyle factors impact healthy aging, nutrition is definitely at the top of the list. Research is continuing to prove what you may have already known—that a high-quality diet really can add years to your life. There’s still a lot for researchers to learn, but what is clear is that healthy eating can impact your life expectancy for the better.
Although certain foods are thought to be linked with healthy aging, eating for longevity is less about focusing on single foods and more about overall eating patterns. In areas known for the general longevity of their population, food is often viewed as a sort of medicine.
Foods for Longevity
Eating more foods from the following groups can help reduce certain food intake-related risk factors as you age.
Every food technically has a function, but the level to which it provides nourishment differs. Certain foods are considered extra “functional”—or provide nutrition that exceeds the norm. These foods are often referred to as functional foods.
While you’ll have to beware of its use as a buzzword, tending towards functional foods may be a good idea if you want to extend your lifespan. Functional foods can come from animal sources—such as probiotic-rich yogurt—or plant sources—like antioxidant-rich dark, leafy greens.
One class of chemical compounds, in particular, which links many functional foods to longevity is antioxidants. As one study so aptly words it, antioxidants “work for the maintenance of health and vigor.”
Antioxidants, such as the following, are found at especially high levels in fruits and vegetables:
- Naturally occurring plant polyphenols
- Minerals such as selenium, copper, and zinc
- Vitamins A, C, and E
Along with antioxidants, many functional foods contain exceptional levels of anti-inflammatory agents. In general, the risk of inflammation is thought to rise with age, making it important to add inflammation-fighting foods to the diet each day.
In particular, foods rich in healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids are thought to make a difference. For example, the long-living elderly population of Bama, China, regularly uses hemp seeds (which naturally contain the proper omega-6 to omega-3 ratio) to fulfill their healthy fat needs.
Pre- and probiotic foods are also considered functional foods. These foods elicit a unique effect on gut health by creating a healthy intestinal environment and potentially improving absorption. If you’re new to probiotics, try starting with fermented dairy products, kimchi, or sauerkraut.
Protein is crucial to building muscle mass, which can help keep you strong and healthy as you age. According to emerging research, increasing protein intake in later years may promote longevity.
Plant-based protein and lean protein, in particular, are optimal sources of nutrients. Consider incorporating more of the following foods into your diet:
- Legumes and pulses (beans, peas, lentils)
- Low-fat dairy
- Nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters
Making half your grains whole isn’t just good diet advice. Interestingly, whole grains are also linked with lengthening the lifespan due to their ability to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease when eaten in place of refined grains.
Some specific whole grains included in the diets of longer-living populations include:
- Brown rice
- Corn, whole cornmeal, and whole corn flour (including popcorn!)
- Oats, oat bran, or oat flour
- Wheat germ
How to Eat and Live Longer
In addition to eating nutrient-rich foods, older adults can practice healthful habits to increase the likelihood of longevity.
Look to the World’s “Blue Zones”
Certain areas of the world are known as “blue zones”—places where people live the longest. While you don’t have to replicate the diet of these areas exactly, their lifestyles may hold some secrets to longevity.
For example, two Mediterranean islands—Ikaria, Greece and Sardinia, Italy—qualify as blue zones. In fact, some sources call Ikaria the “island where people forget to die.”
The Mediterranean diet was based on eating patterns in this area and can be a great starting point if you’re looking for a formal diet to follow for longevity. The MIND diet, which includes components of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, may also be a good way to promote a longer life.
Minimize Risky Behaviors
It may go without saying, but actively taking steps to reduce health risks is a key part of living a longer life. For example, choosing lean meats more often and red meats or processed meats less often can encourage longevity.
In general, avoiding processed and ultra-processed foods has been linked with improving lifespan. Additionally, quitting smoking and moderating alcohol intake encourages longevity.
Consider a More Veggie-Centric Lifestyle
Following plant-based diets has long been linked with health and longevity. As mentioned above, plant-based foods are naturally nutrient-rich and contain components like antioxidants that are thought to help optimize health.
If you’re not necessarily a big fan of vegetables, you can start small by simply trying to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables you do like during each meal. If you already eat a lot of fruits and veggies, it may be worth looking into a vegetarian lifestyle, which has been shown in some studies to extend the lifespan.
Telomeres are DNA structures that act as a cap on the end of chromosomes. They protect some of the most important genetic material yet are susceptible to fraying or degrading with age.
Luckily, diet can play a positive role in promoting telomere health. Many foods that benefit telomeres overlap with plant-based diets, including mainly whole foods (like fruits, beans, and whole grains) and functional foods (specifically those with healthy fats, like fatty fish or vegetable oils).
Look at Food Every Step of the Way
Regarding longevity-promoting foods, the preparation method also makes a difference. It’s important to consider everywhere your food has traveled, from farm to table.
In many blue zones, the food is produced locally. But instead of fretting over local versus organic vs conventional, experts recommend choosing the most nutrient-rich option you can afford and that is available to you.
Cooking methods can also influence the nutrient density of a meal. Typically, fried, battered, and breaded foods contain fewer nutrients (and are more processed) than grilled or sauteed dishes. Making more food at home instead of eating out is a great way to work towards more meals for longevity.
Surprisingly, hydration may also play a role in longer living. Individuals who work to stay well-hydrated tend to have other healthy habits and are likely to have a longer lifespan. Basically, hydration is expected to slow signs of aging from the cellular level to the surface of the skin.
Make Heart-Healthy Choices a Habit
When in doubt, making heart-healthy swaps is a great way to encourage longevity. Specifically, swapping refined grains for whole grains and saturated fats for healthy ones can make a big difference in preventing or managing life-altering conditions like cardiovascular disease (heart disease). Heart-healthy guidelines, like avoiding excessive salt intake to control high blood pressure and wear and tear to blood vessels, are considered wise words for geriatric populations, too.
A Final Word on Nutrition and Aging
Nutrition and longevity are linked, and consuming nutrient-rich foods may even promote a higher quality of life with age. Stay healthy and prevent disease by tending towards a largely plant-based diet, complete with vegetables, lean proteins, and probiotic-rich dairy like yogurt.
If you’re struggling to make sense of diet, disease, or eating for longevity, don’t forget you can meet with a dietitian to help clear things up. Geriatric dietitians specifically serve elderly populations and can give you individualized recommendations on what you can do to extend your lifespan.
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