How to live longer: best foods for better health and longevity

The growing longevity industry uses innovations in research, diagnostics and health care to improve health and delay aging in the eternal quest for longer life. A large factor in determining longevity is individual lifestyle choices, particularly diet, a factor that we can control ourselves. Which foods benefit longevity, and which should be limited in the pursuit of prolonged lifespan?

What is longevity?

Longevity – living in good health for longer than the average life expectancy – involves an interplay of health and lifespan. With medical advances and improved welfare, average life expectancy has increased over the last few centuries, with anyone born in the US today having a good chance of living to see their 78th birthday [1]. However, longevity can improve or reduce depending on multiple factors including sex, location, genetics, lifestyle and environment. While some of these factors are out with our control, there are several lifestyle steps that individuals can take to improve their own lifespan, such as including longevity-boosting food in their diets.

Foods for longevity  

Eating food is integral to life; it sustains us, and a major part of socialising is based around shared meals. However, the rise of high-fat, low-nutrient convenience food has made it easier to indulge in an unhealthy diet every day, with obesity, metabolic disease and cardiovascular disease forming a large part of global morbidity and mortality. The foods we eat as in our everyday lifestyles have the power to prolong our lives and are therefore important tools in improving longevity. The old adage purporting the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet holds true, of which the many Blue Zones in the Mediterranean region where inhabitants often live to 90 years old and beyond, are testament of. While enjoying a balanced diet high in fruit and veg, protein, oily fish and wholegrain carbohydrates, and low in refined carbohydrates, sugars and saturated fats, is the best and most sustainable way to eat towards longevity, there are additional so-called ‘superfoods’ that can provide an extra health boost.

Getting our five-a-day is instilled in most of us from childhood, however many people fail to eat their five-a-day as adults. Increasing your fruit and veg intake, while not ground-breaking, is the most effective way to improve longevity through diet.
Photograph: Brenda Godinez

  • Fruit and veg. Getting our five-a-day is instilled in most of us from childhood, however many people fail to eat their five-a-day as adults. Increasing your fruit and veg intake, while not ground-breaking, is the most effective way to improve longevity through diet. Considering the variety of fruit and veg that changes regionally and seasonally, it is easy to incorporate them into your diet without getting bored. Eating your full five portions of nutrient-rich fruit and veg everyday is associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, especially from cardiovascular disease [2].
  • Green tea, coffee and hot cocoa. An everyday staple in most adults’ diets, a high intake of tea, specifically the green variety, and coffee can also reduce the risk of all-cause mortality [3]. This is thought to be due to their high concentration of polyphenols, micronutrients found in plants that have antioxidant benefits. Other good sources of polyphenols include cocoa powder, berries, herbs and spices. Of course, this applies to hot drinks taken without the usual additions of sugar, cream and sweeteners, so opt for healthier alternatives like non-dairy milks or manuka honey.
  • Whole grains. Once blamed for weight gain, whole grain carbohydrates are the perfect base for every meal and can be used to replace refined carbohydrates like white bread. Try porridge oats in the morning, a wholegrain bread sandwich for lunch and finish the day off with a vegetable and brown rice dish in the evening.
  • Nuts and berries. Reverting back to the simpler diet of foraged food from our ancestral hunter-gatherer days may come with additional health benefits. Common to the Nordic diet, nuts (a source of healthy fats) and berries (which contain polyphenols) have antioxidant benefits and are easy to snack on throughout the day to reduce hunger pangs between meals.
  • Wheat germ. Part of the wheat kernel, wheat germ is a health food rich in the polyamine spermidine, which is considered to have antiaging and longevity benefits. This is due to spermidine’s ability to induce cellular autophagy in the body, the process by which cells reuse their old organelles to renew.
  • Fasting. Regularly practising caloric restriction through a fasting programme may also improve longevity. Fasting promotes weight loss as the body switches from glucose in food for energy to metabolising its own fat reserves through ketosis. Longer fasts place increased nutrient stress on cells, inducing cellular renewal via autophagy. Intermittent fasting, alternating between periods of fasting (usually overnight) and feasting (during the day) can be used to compliment a healthy diet for improved health and lifespan.

Foods to limit

As expected, eating highly-process foods compared to whole foods can limit longevity. In one nutritional study, the main culprits positively associated with chronic disease and all-cause mortality were as follows:

  • Red and processed meat. Meat is a healthy source of protein essential to muscle growth, however regularly eating meat, especially red or highly processed meat, can negatively impact health and longevity. It is therefore a good idea to adopt a more ‘flexitarian’ approach to eating by replacing red or processed meat with either lean cuts, oily fish or vegetable-based meals a few times a week [3].
  • Sugar. Amongst other health concerns, refined sugar is linked to increased telomere shortening that is associated with reduced life expectancy and higher risk of age-related disease. The telomeres in our DNA shorten with age anyway, so it is a good idea to avoid the processed foods that can exacerbate this process like cakes, biscuits and alcoholic and soft drinks [3].
  • Excessive alcohol consumption. The information around the relation between alcohol and longevity is conflicting; some studies show that moderate alcohol consumption, especially of red wine, can have cardiovascular benefits. However, a well-known study by Cambridge University found that even one drink a week could reduce lifespan and increase the risk of disease. The threshold for the lowest risk of mortality was estimated at around 100g of alcohol per week, so drinking in moderation, no more than 196g for men and 98g for women per week in the United States to be exact, is advisable.

While it is neither enjoyable nor feasible to completely eliminate these food types from your diet, limiting your intake is key to a better balanced diet. Therefore, try to eat them in moderation at weekends, for example, while leaving the healthy stuff to during the week.

Longevity supplements 

While it is important to take dietary supplements that provide the body with missing nutrients to prevent deficiencies, it may also be beneficial to consider longevity supplements. These contain active ingredients that work on the mechanisms involved in the aging process. Aging is caused by an accumulation of molecular and cellular damage in the body over time, resulting in the phenotypes of aging. Longevity supplements work on the primary hallmarks of aging that cause this damage, slowing them down. Popular longevity supplements on the market include spermidine, NAD and resveratrol, which all promise antiaging and longevity. Supplements usually contain a concentrated amount of ingredients found naturally in the body or in food, making them safe to consume. They should be taken alongside a balanced diet full of longevity-boosting foods to achieve their full effects.
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