5 Food Rules for a Long, Healthy Life

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Eating plenty of plant-based foods is one component of a life-prolonging diet.

We all want to live happy, healthy lives for as long as possible. And as we age and encounter our frailties, the quest for ways to stay healthy becomes more pressing. Turns out, the path to more energy, vitality, better health, and even additional years may start in the kitchen.

It’s National Nutrition Month, and now is as good a time as any to re-evaluate your eating habits, as well as those of your aging loved ones. Of course, changing long-ingrained eating habits will require some serious time and effort.

The good news?

Regardless of your age, keeping some key food guidelines in mind can help boost your health and maybe even lengthen your life.

1. Choose whole foods

A good rule of thumb for healthy eating that can boost longevity is to opt for whole foods over processed foods whenever possible. In case you’re unsure, whole foods are those that are composed of one ingredient or that has been processed or refined as little as possible. These foods generally don’t include added salt, carbohydrates or fat, thus tend to be better for your health.

The Blue Zones Solution, a book that draws lessons from the nutritional habits of the populations in the world that live longest, encourages readers to eat foods that are “recognizable for what they are,” emphasizing food items from the farm rather than the factory. In other words, for a longer, healthier life, it’s best to choose foods that are as close as possible to the way the would be found in nature. That means opting for vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes over processed meats, sugary beverages or cheese puffs.

2. Get more of your food from plants

Significant research has shown that eating a plant-based diet and limiting meat intake can boost health outcomes and possibly add years to your life. Stacey Milak, clinical dietician at Cedar Crest, a senior living community in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, notes that fruits and veggies are filled with nutrients that most people don’t get enough of, such as fiber, potassium and folic acid.

"Eating fruits and vegetables has been associated with lower risk for certain diseases such as heart disease and cancer,” Milak says. “They also can help you stay full longer.” In a 2003 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, participants who ate meat less than once a week had a significantly lower risk of death than those who ate it more often.

You don’t have to eschew meat entirely to see the benefits. Simply cutting back, especially on red meat, can cut your risk of dying early, the National Cancer Institute has found.

3. Slash sugar

You’ve probably heard it before, but Americans eat far too much sugar, and cutting down on the amount you take in may be one of the best things you can do for your health. Frequently consuming foods and drinks with lots of added sugar, such as cookies, candy and soda, can take years off of your life and increase your risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other life-threatening illnesses.

A Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study found that about 180,000 obesity-related deaths across the globe could be attributed to drinking sugary beverages. Limiting the amount of added sugar in your diet – the American Heart Association recommends no more than nine teaspoons a day for men and six for women – can help keep your health in check and boost your longevity.

4. Go nuts

When you’re reaching for a healthy snack, nuts are one of the best bets. Blue Zone residents were found to eat nuts regularly, and a one study found that participants who ate a handful of nuts daily were less likely to die for any reason over a three-decade period.

Registered dietician nutritionist and author Maggie Moon also recommends nuts as part of a diet for a longer life, citing a 2013 New England Journal of Medicine study that revealed that people who ate nuts at least seven times per week outlived those who ate nuts less often.

5. Water, coffee, tea and red wine are fine

The vast majority of the long-living Blue Zones residents were found to drink coffee, tea, water and wine. Sugary drinks like soda and juice typically aren’t on the menu in these regions.

Voluminous research has shown the health benefits of drinking plenty of water, especially as you age and it’s easier to become dehydrated. Meanwhile, coffee is an antioxidant and has been linked to lower rates of dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Regularly drinking green tea, which is also chock full of antioxidants, has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease and several types of cancer. And red wine, when consumed in moderation, has been found to yield health benefits such lowered risk of both heart disease and blood clots.