Would you like to live to age 90 or beyond? There are some daily practices that will increase your chances of doing so – and a healthy diet is one of the most important.
Around 440 BCE, the Greek physician Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be food.” While considering food as medicine remains a highly debated concept, many recent studies have demonstrated that food quantity, type, and timing are crucial for good health.
[Author’s note: The content of this article is not intended to be medical advice. Please consult a physician, registered dietician or other qualified health professional for specific direction on what is the best nutrition for your needs.]
In a recent compilation study, researchers analyzed hundreds of other studies examining nutrition and delayed aging, nutrient response pathways, caloric restriction, fasting, and diets with various macronutrient and composition levels, like Keto and Paleo, to identify a diet that optimizes human health and longevity. Their conclusion? There is no single “optimal” diet. Instead, the best way to eat depends on a combination of factors, including age, sex, and genetics, as well as food sensitivities like gluten intolerance.
However, the researchers were able to establish some commonalities, most of which shouldn’t be surprising to most of us:
- A diet that’s focused primarily on fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains
- Restricting sugar and refined carbohydrates
- 30% of calories daily from vegetable fats such as nuts and olive oil
- Low consumption of red or processed meat (i.e. salami, sausage, lunch meats)
- Low but sufficient protein intake until age 65 and then a moderate intake
- Twelve hours of eating and twelve hours of fasting per day
- Around three cycles of a five-day fasting-mimicking diet per year
Each of these could be the subject of its own article. For this article, let’s focus on the first two – by defining some of these nutritional terms that are often misunderstood.
A legume is any plant that bears its fruit inside a pod, including beans and pulses (plants grown as food and harvested for their dry seed). All beans are considered legumes, but not all legumes are considered beans. Here’s a list of the most common legumes:
- Lentils (not a bean)
- Soybeans and edamame (immature soybeans)
- Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans)
- Peanuts (because they grow in a pod underground, so they’re not technically a nut)
- Black beans
- Green peas
- Lima beans
- Kidney beans
- Black-eyed peas
- Navy beans
- Pinto beans
All grains start out as whole grains. The qualifier “whole” simply means the entire seed of the plant. This seed has three key edible parts – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm – all of which is protected by an inedible husk. Without the bran and germ, about 25% of a grain’s protein is lost, and at least seventeen key nutrients are significantly reduced. Here are a few examples of where to find whole grains:
- Oats and oatmeal
- Brown rice
- Bulgar (aka cracked wheat)
What about whole grain flour? Unfortunately, whole grains ground into flour do not have the same health benefits as unprocessed whole grains. While still a much health choice than white flour, whole grain flour and the products made with it (bread, primarily) are still not as beneficial as the original source.
Here is a link to a page on the website of the Whole Grains Council where you can search any food to find out if it contains whole grain.
Not all “carbs” are bad for you. Scientifically speaking, complex carbs are formed by long, intricate chains of sugar molecules. Simple carbs are essentially basic sugar molecules.
Carbohydrates come in three types: fiber, starch, and sugar. Fiber and starches are complex carbs, and sugars are simple, often refined, carbs.
Complex carbs provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The majority of carbs in our diet should come from the complex categories (fibers and starches) as well as naturally occurring sugars, such as fruits. Refined sugars are “empty calories” with little to no nutritional value.
All carbs eventually break down into glucose (blood sugar) during digestion, to be used for energy. If your body has more glucose than it needs, a small portion of the excess is stored in the liver and muscles (as glycogen), and the rest as triglycerides in fat cells.
|Complex Carbs (starches and fiber)||Simple Carbs|
|Fiber-rich fruits in whole form||Raw sugar|
|Whole grains||High-fructose corn syrup|
|Potatoes (white or sweet)||Fruit juice concentrate|
|Foods made with whole grain flour (breads, pasta)||Processed fruit juices|
What about dairy foods?
Dairy is complicated. It’s comprised of proteins, fats, and a specific type of sugar called lactose. Lactose breaks down into glucose (blood sugar) just like any other simple carb. But there’s such a wide variety of foods that fall into the “dairy” category: milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, and cream and all the subvarieties of each. Regardless, dairy contains many important nutrients: protein, calcium, B vitamins, and vitamin D. Fermented dairy products like yogurt and some cheeses, are lower in lactose and have healthy bacteria that may benefit digestive health. Cheeses in particular vary widely in the amount of lactose they contain. For example, parmesan, Swiss and brie have extremely low simple carbs per serving.
More about protein
Protein exists in every cell of the body. Adequate protein is essential to keeping muscles, bones, and tissues healthy. Protein also plays a critical role in many body functions, such as blood clotting, immune system response, vision, and hormone and fluid balance.
The results of the study compilation mentioned above regarding protein are interesting – and confusing. They advocate low (“but sufficient”) protein intake up to age 65, then “moderate” intake thereafter. This seems contradictory to what’s been promoted for years, and especially as high protein intake is the focus of the popular Keto and Paleo diets. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, with the traditional Western diet, the average American consumes about double the protein their body needs. Additionally, the primary sources of protein consumed tend to be animal products, which can also be high in fat and saturated fat.
The U.S. government recommends a daily protein intake of 56 grams for men, and 46 grams for women, on average.
The Physicians Committee also states that high-protein diets for weight loss, disease prevention, and enhanced athletic performance are supported by little to no verifiable scientific research. Rather, extensive studies show that the healthiest diet is one that is high in [complex] carbohydrates, low in fat, and adequate in protein.
Where we get our protein matters even more
Scientific studies confirm that the source of protein in our diets is a significant contributing factor to longevity. The World Health Organization has declared red and processed meats “carcinogenic to humans” and observed an increased risk for pancreatic, stomach, and other cancers. Replacing red and processed meat with plant-based protein sources has been shown to reduce the risk of death from heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Processed meats are things like baloney, salami, hot dogs, corned beef, bacon, sausage (and anything that has “nugget” in its name.)
So what are some good sources of plant-based proteins?
- Tofu (soy)
- Chickpeas (aka Garbanzo beans)
Interestingly, all of these are also legumes/whole grains/complex carbs.
What so many studies conclude is that if we want to live longer, we must put food in our bodies that will reduce the likelihood of disease, keep our muscles and bones strong, and support our immune systems.
Start by making just a few small changes to your nutrition – like swapping red meat for leaner choices such as chicken or fish; eliminating processed meats altogether; or adding a serving of legumes as a side dish for lunch or dinner. Then build on those new habits step by step. Small changes can make a huge difference in the long run!