The longevity diet: how it works, benefits and side effects

Health and lifespan depend on various changing factors, like genetics, lifestyle – and a combination of the two, also known as epigenetics

Adjusting the amount, timing and type of what we consume are some of the most natural and helpful lifestyle shifts we can make to boost longevity, enhance health and lose weight [1].

A diet to achieve longevity

If you’re looking for another reason to start eating healthily, a new study shows that consuming tons of red meat and heavily processed sweets may lead to a shorter life.

Scientists studied research from hundreds of analyses on animals and humans to gain a more detailed scenario of what we might want to eat – and when – to get the best opportunity at a longer and healthier life.

Valter Longo, PhD, study co-author and gerontology professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said they looked into the link between fasting, genes, longevity and nutrients. They related this information to epidemiological and clinical studies in primates and humans, including centenarians.

The research concentrated on animal and human eating patterns, diseases and lifespans. It also reviewed several popular eating patterns, such as a high-fat and low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet, a low-calorie diet, the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet and vegetarian and vegan.

In addition, the study examined how the timing of food intake affects health and longevity. Scientists concentrated on various types of fasting, including routine intermittent fasting, which limits food consumption to a certain number of hours per day, as well as occasional fasting or FMD (fasting-mimicking diets) done only one or two days each month.

What is the longevity diet?

Longo created the longevity diet to allow people to eat in a way that encourages the healthiest and most prolonged life achievable. Longo says he gathered various research sources to create a plan incorporating healthy eating habits and a fasting-mimicking diet.

Those include a medium to high amount of carbohydrates from unrefined sources, a low but adequate amount of protein from plant-based sources and about 30 per cent of calories from plant-based fats (avocados or olives). He also explains that all meals, including snacks should happen within 12 hours and that a five-day FMD should be practised twice or three times a year.

In Longo’s view, the purpose of the diet is not to do something trendy that will become unpopular after a month or two but instead toward a multi-pillar strategy that will hold up for 20 years [2].

What is the longevity diet

How does the longevity diet work?

So how does this diet work? It’s worth looking at the following elements:

Fasting: if you’re a beginner in the longevity diet, start by following a strict vegan diet and limiting calories to between 800 and 1,100 daily. When eating this way, your body gets fooled into believing it’s fasting. This is also known as the FMD. Before starting, Longo advises talking to a registered dietitian or doctor.

Food: also, researchers point out that the longevity diet is mostly plant-based. You’ll consume a lot of produce (fruits in moderation), healthy oils like olive oil, whole grains, legumes and dark chocolate – and you’ll eat fish a few times a week. The diet removes all red meat – including processed ones such as hot dogs, pepperoni and sausage) and specifies limiting dairy for many individuals. However, small amounts of white meat are allowed.

What are the health benefits of the longevity diet?

Although more research on this diet plan is still limited, there is much study on plant-based eating. Another fasting-related aspects of the longevity diet, fasting-mimicking and intermittent fasting, are also less studied.

In the April 2022 publication of Cell, Longo said that FMD has been connected with anti-inflammatory and metabolic outcomes in mice. These could reduce risk factors for certain diseases, he adds [3].

While a review published in October 2021 in the Annual Review of Nutrition states that intermittent fasting patterns such as time-restricted eating (a portion of the longevity diet) is a safe way to enhance metabolic health for people who are obese. Yet, the jury is out regarding additional benefits [4]. 

In addition, one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April 2022 found that a time-restricted diet is less beneficial in weight loss in people with obesity than a calorie-restricted diet [5].

Here’s a rundown of some of the potential health effects of this eating plan:

A healthier heart: plant-based diets, which feature plenty of produce, is a smart option for heart health. According to the World Health Organization, heart diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide [6]. A review from the International Journal of Epidemiology in February 2017 presented that five daily servings of fruits and vegetables was linked to decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, more servings of around 10 per day was associated with even lower risk [7].

A longer life: as the name of the diet indicates, this potential bonus likely comes as no surprise. Plant-based eating is the element of the longevity diet that researchers have studied most widely.

Research shows that individuals can boost life expectancy by three up to 13 years just by replacing the Western diet of red meat and processed foods with a diet containing more nutrient-rich foods, including vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and nuts [8]. The research also highlights that the gains may be even more significant when people start the diet earlier.

Lower risk for type 2 diabetes: consuming abundant plant-based foods, like vegetables, legumes and nuts, is a crucial pillar in the longevity diet. Research published in Diabetologia in April 2022 said that a raised overall vegetable and fruit intake might be associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes in men (it should be noted that there wasn’t an association with women in this particular study) [9]. Similarly, a diet high in red meat and poultry may increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, according to a May 2017 publication in the American Journal of Epidemiology [10]

Reduced risk for cancer: plant-based diet may help guard against cancer. A review in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that a diet rich in vegetables and fruits was linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and decreased cancer odds.

Also, a study published in February 2022 in the journal BMC Medicine [11] found that those who consumed a low-meat or meat-free diet (defined as meat five times or less weekly in this particular research) had a lower overall cancer risk than those who consumed more [12]. 

Stronger vision: prevention of eye diseases that can come along with old age (cataracts and macular degeneration) may be prevented by following this diet, according to Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health [13]. Research also suggests that increased consumption of fruits and veggies are associated with a lower risk of cataracts. [14].

Are there any side effects?

There’s no single special “longevity diet,” the researchers found, but a set of fundamental principles that appear associated with extended lifespan and health – and few side effects.

These include any diets with mid to high carbohydrate composition but low protein intake “that is mostly plant-based but includes regular consumption of pesco-vegetarian-derived proteins,” according to the authors.

For example, among long-lived populations, Okinawans consumed a diet consisting of only 1 per cent animal protein and very little fat consumption. Yet, evaluations of diets among other long-lived people showed that taking in around 30 per cent of one’s energy from fat was perfectly healthy and perhaps even protective.

“The high circulating fat content does not appear to have the pro-aging effects,” the researchers added. Similarly, a deficient protein diet “may instead contribute to lean body mass loss and frailty” among people over 65. With that, it can be concluded that it’s essential to tailor your “longevity diet” to your age, needs and preferences [15].

[1] https://www.cell.com/cell/pdf/S0092-8674(22)00398-1.pdf
[2] https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/longevity-diet/
[3] https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(22)00398-1?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0092867422003981%3Fshowall%3Dtrue
[4] https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-nutr-052020-041327
[5] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2114833
[6] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cardiovascular-diseases-(cvds)#
[7] https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/46/3/1029/3039477
[8] https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1003889
[9] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00394-022-02871-6
[10] https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/186/7/824/3848997
[11] https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-022-02256-w
[12] https://www.everydayhealth.com/cancer/guide/cancer-risk-factors-prevention/
[13] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vegetables-and-fruits/
[14] https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/81/6/1417/4648868
[15] https://www.healthline.com/health-news/longevity-diet-eat-more-nuts-legumes-and-whole-grains-less-red-meat#Diet-principles-versus-set-rules

Photograph: Olena Ukhova/ShutterStock
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