In around 440 BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates reputably said “Let food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be food.” Although food as medicine is a highly deliberated concept, much current research has shown the wisdom in this statement and how managing food quantity, timing and type is crucial for good health .
Yet, what exactly makes up the optimal diet stays controversial. Increasing evidence indicates optimal diets may rely on various health factors (age, sex and genetics).
Scientific studies on the longevity diet
Recently, researchers examined countless nutrition studies from cellular to epidemiological perspectives to identify a “common denominator nutrition pattern” to achieve healthy longevity. They saw that diets including mid-to-high levels of unrefined carbohydrates, a low but sufficient plant-based protein intake and regular fish consumption are connected to an extended healthspan and lifespan.
Dr Valter Longo, a gerontology and biological sciences professor at the University of Southern California , cleared that referring to “diet” in their study is meant to be as a nutritional lifestyle, not a weight-loss scheme. Although maintaining a healthy weight is vital, all aspects of the diet are linked to long-term health and longevity.
Foods approved for the longevity diet
- Beans, pulses, legumes: a cup of cooked beans/pulses daily
- Fruits and vegetables: 5 to 10 servings a day
- Nuts and seeds: a handful a day
- 100 per cent whole grains: brown rice, bulgur, cornmeal, farro, quinoa, oatmeal.
A recipe for living a longer life
On the basis of all this details, scientists came to what they describe as a “longevity diet” that may help aid individuals live the longest, healthiest possible life. According to Dr Longo, the key to longevity is: “Lots of legumes, whole grains, and vegetables; some fish; no red meat or processed meat, and very low white meat; low sugar and refined grains; good levels of nuts and olive oil, and some dark chocolate.”
Looking at the recommendations, this might be considered a pescatarian diet, primarily plant-based with some fish and seafood. The researchers reported in an April 28 publication of Cell , that to live the longest life, people shouldn’t cut out carbs.
On the contrary, the researchers concluded that carbs should count for the majority of food intake, but individuals should get these nutrients from whole foods rather than heavily processed foods. In addition, snacking around the clock isn’t a great idea. Instead, you should try to consume most of the day’s meals within a window or 11 to 12 hours.
With regards to fasting, the recommendation was to practise it for three or four times a year. With this, you can focus more on limiting calories or tapering the window of consuming food, since even periodic fasting has been shown to decrease high blood pressure, inflammation and high cholesterol – all of which contribute to different chronic diseases.
It’s never too late to embrace a longevity lifestyle
Practising this kind of diet, with plenty of whole grains, vegetables, legumes and nuts, with minimal red or processed meats could increase life expectancy by nearly 11 years in women and 13 years in men if started at age 20, and about 8 years if started by age 60, according to other research, according to PLOS Medicine in February this year .
That doesn’t mean a longevity diet would look the same for everyone. And it also doesn’t mean the food is the only thing you need to think about for the longest possible life. Longo said that regular exercise and other lifestyle habits also make a big difference.
Longo added that the longevity diet is not a dietary restriction meant to cause weight loss. Still, a lifestyle focused on slowing aging can complement traditional healthcare and, taken as a preventative measure, will aid in bypassing morbidity and sustaining health into advanced age .
How do you start a longevity diet?
Here’s a sample meal plan based on the longevity diet’s principle of eating high unrefined carbohydrates, low protein and enough fats. All meals should be consumed within the recommended 12-13 hour window, so know to stop eating at least 12 hours after your first meal.
Interestingly, the study does not investigate the effects of alcohol on longevity, but you could end your day with a congratulatory glass of red wine Mediterranean style .
Breakfast: wholegrain cereal with yoghurt, berries, nuts and grated dark chocolate.
Lunch: skinny Caesar salad made with green leaves, quinoa, tomatoes, avocado and wholemeal croutons, parmesan shavings and drizzled with olive oil.
Dinner: a portion of oily fish, (like mackerel or salmon), accompanied by veggies cooked to your preference.
Some things to remember
The researchers noted that diets concerning protein and calorie restriction were regularly favourable, whether in short-lived species or large clinical trials and om epidemiological studies. They further indicated that low but adequate protein, or an endorsed protein intake with elevated levels of legume consumption, could raise health span by lowering the intake of amino acids, including methionine. Methionine has been associated to increased activity in various pro-aging cellular pathways.
In terms of how the longevity diet may benefit health from a clinical perspective, Kristin Kirkpatrick , a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Cleveland Clinic and advisor to Dr Longo’s firm, Prolon, shared something with MNT. The diet is basically plant-based which, based on similar studies, may contribute to a lower risk of chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes .
In multiple studies, plant-based diets have also been associated with lower inflammation levels. As inflammation is the base of many health concerns, this may contribute to the longevity factors as well, Kirkpatrick added.
The researchers establish that their findings provide solid foundations for future research into nutritional recommendations for healthy longevity. When asked about the study’s limitations, the researchers agreed and highlighted that there is no “one-size-fits-all” method. The optimal diet, they say, may differ due to factors including age, genetic makeup, sex and other sensitivities and intolerances, like an intolerance to gluten.
Dr Longo, therefore, recommends individuals consult a dietician before embarking on a new diet. Kirkpatrick added that several of her patients visit her when making dietary changes to ensure they are sustainable in the long term.