foods for longevity
Leaves are changing, pumpkin is, well, everywhere, and the temps are dropping. Fall is clearly in the air. You know what else October (and, well, any other month) can bring? Foods that have been shown to improve our longevity. We’ll come back to that last point in just a moment.
In the past year, in a survey of 3000 people, about 6 out of 10 reported undesired weight gain. Within that group, the average gain for US adults was 29 lbs and for millennials, it was 41 lbs.
Now this isn’t just about weight gain.
While of course weight gain can be unhealthy and lead to other negative patterns, what if we shifted the nutrition focus from just looking at body weight, to considering other measures of health, like energy, connection and, yes, longevity.
There is some interesting data around those who live the longest. Interestingly, there are actually several regions around the globe – 5 in particular - where these individuals live to celebrate their 100th birthday – and then some. To put that in perspective, the average person lives to be around 78, so 100+ is definitely not the norm. In these five regions, however, it’s more the rule than the exception.
These areas are known as the Blue Zones (read more about the Blue Zones in a recent Pursuit article): Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.
So what makes the people in these regions so healthy? Not restriction, pills, potions, hocus pocus, or faddy superfoods. And no, it’s also not trendy diets, exogenous ketones or the like.
They share several lifestyle habits that allow them to not just survive, but thrive.
Here are the 10 daily habits they’ve found to help them find their path to longevity.
- They move naturally (and frequently) and get regular physical activity, i.e. yard work, gardening, walking, etc.
- Having a purpose
- Belonging to a community
- Having and utilizing tools for stress reduction
- Having a healthy social network
- Prioritizing and engaging with family
- Engaging in spirituality or religion
- Moderating calorie intake
- Eating a plant-based diet
- Moderate alcohol intake
Let’s take a good look at the last three on the list: moderate calorie intake, moderate alcohol intake, and plant-based diets.
Let’s start by shifting our focus to the food part of the equation. Of course, this isn’t to discount the other important pieces to the longevity puzzle, but as a dietitian, food is front and center on my “to do” list.
First, don’t eat until you're stuffed. The Japanese have a saying “hara hachi bu,” which instructs people to eat until you’re 80% full. To this end, people in the Blue Zones have their smallest meals during the day or early evening and avoid grazing at night. Compared to the American way of snacking their way through the hours until they reach the next meal and then again snacking on the couch at night while binge watching Netflix. These small changes can help you avoid gaining weight, which ultimately can help you live longer.
Add More Plants
Those who live the longest eat a mostly plant-based diet loaded with fruits, vegetables, and beans. Interestingly, our two girls (9 & 12) decided about a year ago they wanted to follow a pescatarian diet (fish as their only animal protein), so we have naturally been following more of this model.
Now, eating more plants doesn’t have to mean vegetarian, but it does mean complementing meals with mostly plants – colorful, nutrient and fiber rich plants as the foundation of your plate, with other foods playing a supporting role.
The goal should be filling at least ½ your plate with colorful produce, like spinach, kale, carrots, berries, melons and the like. Those don’t of course have to all be together, but if you find a recipe that works with them, please share it!
If ½ your plate sounds intimidating, even just adding one more to your diet from where you are now is a huge step in the right direction. Data shows just adding one single piece of fruit (or veggie) to your day can help you be healthier (and maybe live longer).
Add More Beans
Beans beans they’re good for your heart … and reducing your risk of cancer, stroke, hypertension and so many more. They’re also one of the most cost effective, high quality foods in the world, really. It’s no wonder that those in the Blue Zone areas include beans in their diet on the regular.
Consider adding ½ cup of canned beans to your daily diet as a start.The additional fiber (about 8 grams) from this simple habit alone can do wonders for you, since most people don’t eat much more than that 8 grams daily (but should eat about 3-4 times that). Embrace canned beans; they’re easy, don’t need to be cooked (just rinse and enjoy) and you’re good to go. My favorite way to enjoy them is atop a mixed veggie salad, some nuts and voila.
Add More Seafood (with a special shoutout to sardines)
Coincidentally, October is National Seafood Month.
Seafood is one of the healthiest foods on the planet when balanced, of course, with other foods (veggies, grains – nothing new) and sardines top the list of awesome. Cold water fish as a whole are high in omega 3 fats and protein and have plenty of other vitamins and minerals as well.
Let’s focus on their superpower that is harder to come by in the diet: omega-3 fats. There are many known benefits of including omega-3 fats in the diet. First, they’re known as essential fats meaning the body cannot make them on its own and instead must obtain them from the diet, such as cold water fish (and/or supplements).
Why sardines in particular? They’re not just rich in omega-3 fats, but they also contain vitamin D, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals. Because they’re also so low on the “totem pole” so to speak, they’re also naturally low in contaminants such as mercury.
Add More Nuts
Eat 2 handfuls of nuts daily. And they’re all great – almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts – you name ‘em. Data continues to mount showing a handful (ideally two) each day can reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke and many more life threatening illnesses. The key is portioning out the right amount, which isn’t keeping a 5 lb container in the console of your car, but rather the individual serving size packs you can buy and enjoy as snacks or complements to your meal a couple times each day.
So, there you have it–a handful of foods (plants count for more than just one food since there are so many in that category) that when added to the diet, can help improve your overall health and well being. Notice the head of each section – I said “add more” and never said “eat less.”
I’ll leave you with this. When we think of nutrition, let’s focus on adding to our diet rather than taking away.