It’s an age-old question: Which diet will add more years to your life? In other words, what is the best diet for longevity? The good news is that there is no shortage of well-balanced eating plans that are designed to maintain your youthful glow while keeping chronic diseases at bay. And while each of the six regimes highlighted below offers a slightly different approach, there seems to be a general rule of thumb: Eat plant-based foods, whole grains, and good fats. In fact, a 2017 report from the American Heart Association came to a similar conclusion since they discovered that eating nuts, vegetables, and whole grains, while limiting salt and trans fats, can lead to fewer deaths from heart and blood vessel diseases.
Looking for more specific guidelines? Then read on to learn more about the best diets for health and longevity.
1. Mediterranean Diet
Ah, the Mediterranean diet. This ever-popular eating plan and lifestyle, which is derived from the regimes followed by the those who lived around the Mediterranean Basin (such as Italy, Spain, and Greece) about 60 years ago, focuses on foods that are mostly plant-based (i.e. fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds) along with healthy oils and smaller servings of fish, dairy, and lean meats. After all, the citizens who reside in this part of the world have lower rates of cardiovascular disease — the number one cause of death in men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — as well as longer life spans.
“The combination of beans, lentils, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids from fish have been shown to have a positive impact on inflammation, which may be the driving factor in reducing disease risk and improving longevity,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of 2-Day Diabetes Diet ($8.79, Amazon). She explains that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids have been found to be protective to both brain health and heart health.
In fact, information presented at the May 2018 American Thoracic Society International Conference states that this antioxidant-rich diet has been shown to protect the body from cell and tissue damage caused by air pollution — health risks that could lead to death caused by heart attack, stroke, or other conditions. Also, a study published in a 2014 edition of the British Medical Journal found that greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet was significantly associated with longer telomeres — a compound that sits on top of DNA strands in order to protect chromosomes that shorten as we get older. In other words, this eating plan was associated with slowing down the aging process.
“Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet can also help in the production of the feel-good chemical dopamine,” continues Palinski-Wade. And low levels of this neurotransmitter “may impair the ability to experience happiness and increase the risk of addiction, all of which can be directly correlated with longevity.”
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2. Blue Zone Diet
If you’re hoping to reach a triple-digit age, some researchers advise following the lifestyle patterns of the people who live in any one of the five regions around the globe that have been defined as the Blue Zones: Okinawa, Japan; Icaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
“The majority of these longevity diets have a few common principles,” says Palinski-Wade. “Most of the populations in the Blue Zones eat primarily a plant-based diet limited in added sodium, sugar, and processed foods.” The other basic guidelines on this plan include eating one cup of beans each day, along with eating about 3-ounces of wild-caught salmon or smaller fish (like sardines and anchovies) up to three times a week, consuming a small portion of meat (no larger than a deck of cards) up to twice a week, avoiding dairy as much as possible (yet eggs are okay up to three times a week), choosing whole grain bread and limiting it to 2 slices per day, and drinking mostly water.
However, this longevity diet is more than just about the type of food on your plate —meals high in antioxidants, as well as phytochemicals, a variety of plant ingredients which have been shown to decrease inflammation levels and reduce the risk for cardiovascular conditions and other life-threatening diseases. This eating plan is also about the quantity of food that you consume.
“Eating until you’re only 80 percent full and eating the lightest meal later in the day seem to be common traits, as well,” she continues. “These behaviors may highlight the benefit of portion control and calorie restriction on overall longevity.”
Also, consuming the majority of calories in the morning and afternoon — the hours of the day you’re likely to be the most active — may have a positive long-term effect on health and longevity, too. A 2017 study conducted by medical researchers from Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that late-night eating may lead to hormonal markers that are present in heart disease, diabetes and other chronic, even life-threatening conditions. “Large portions of food eaten late in the evening close to bedtime can increase insulin production overnight, which may have a negative impact on body weight, blood glucose levels, and inflammation,” says Palinski-Wade.
3. Okinawa Diet
There’s a reason why Okinawa is also referred to as “land of immortals” — because there are sizable numbers of centenarians that inhabit this island. In fact, according to an April 2018 article reported in The Japan Times, the average life expectancy for women who live in a village in Okinawa is 89 years old. And not only is it the highest average, but this area has won this title for the third consecutive year.
“The island population who follows this longevity diet have been found to eat a large majority of their calories from green leafy vegetables and yellow vegetables [such as soy beans, tofu, and goya], along with sweet potatoes,” explains Palinski-Wade. “And due to their large consumption of veggies, their diet is rich in fiber and antioxidants (such as vitamin C and A), as well as low in overall fat, sodium, added sugar, and calories.”
She adds that this type of meal plan — fiber-rich foods and plenty of vegetables — “are associated with a lower risk of disease such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, which is why it makes sense a largely plant-based diet may contribute to increased longevity,” says Palinski-Wade. Also, a 2009 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition suggests that the traditional Okinawan diet — an eating pattern that promotes low levels of saturated fat, high antioxidant intake, and low glycemic load — are “likely contributing to a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and other chronic diseases.”
Plus, a low-protein, high-carb lifestyle was found to extend the lifespan in an animal study published in a 2016 issue of the journal Age and Ageing. And these researchers from Australia noted that this longevity diet was “almost identical” to the people who live on the island of Okinawa.
A report published in a 2009 edition of the Indian Journal of Community Medicine states that women in this region have also been found to have a high intake of foods with natural estrogens. The main food in this group: Soy, which contains plant-based estrogens, phytoestrogens. Another major class of phytoestrogens are lignans, which can be found in other plant foods consumed by these female residents, such as flax seeds, legumes, broccoli, and onions.
And similar to those who follow the Blue Zone diet, Okinawa citizens practice the cultural habit hara hachi bu — eating until you’re about 80 percent full.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
4. Shepherd’s Diet
If you have a strong belief in a higher power, then this new lifestyle may be your best diet for longevity. “This is a Christian-based diet program that encourages scripture-based health and nutrition decisions,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. “It advocates prayer to reduce stress while also focusing on eating healthy fats, vegetables, ethically produced meat and dairy, low-carb plant proteins, unprocessed whole grains, and fresh herbs.”
Gorin points out that the basic principles of this food regime — lots of veggies, good fats (including avocado and olive oil), and plant-based proteins (like chickpeas, beans, and nuts) — are similar to other longevity diets, such as the Mediterranean diet. In fact, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Nutrition concluded that polyphenols — naturally occurring compounds found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes — was linked to a 30 percent reduction in overall mortality in older adults.
“The diet includes short-term fasting, which can have side effects and be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions,” says Gorin. However, for those who can adhere to the partial fast once every week, 2017 research from University of Southern California shows that short periods of fasting may help reduce the likelihood of developing cardiovascular risk factors (such as high cholesterol), diabetes, cancer, and other age-related, life-threatening diseases.
Also, praying on a regular basis could result in more birthday parties in your honor. A 2016 study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that female volunteers who attended religious services more than once a week had a 33 percent reduced risk of death.
5. California Diet
Welcome to the longevity diet followed in the Golden State! “Also known as the Sonoma Diet, this plan is based on the coastal California lifestyle,” says Gorin. While it was inspired by the Mediterranean diet, she further explains this eating pattern is structured in three waves.
“The first wave focuses on decreasing dependence on added sugar and white flour, along with including specific meal guidelines,” she continues. “For example, breakfast should be 25 percent grain and 75 percent protein, served on a plate with a diameter of 18 inches.” We know that smaller dishes leads to smaller portions—and an animal study conducted by researchers at Salk Institute in 2007 uncovered the biological mechanisms as to why a calorie-restricted diet can lead to a longer life span.
Wave number two focuses on weight loss at a slower pace, while wave number three is a maintenance phase. “The ‘power foods’ on this longevity diet, including certain fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, and olive oil, are to be eaten daily,” says Gorin. She adds that these foods have been shown to have positive effects on cholesterol levels, along with keeping you fuller for longer, which can aid in weight loss.
Also, similar to the Mediterranean diet, wine in moderation is part of this plan, as well. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Disease Research found that moderate consumption of red wine may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, due to the antioxidant effects in polyphenols. And on an interesting note, in February 2018, professors from Louisiana State University developed a new treatment for heart disease made from two antioxidant compounds found in red wine: resveratrol and quercetin.
6. Sardinian Diet
Yes, it’s time to enter the Blue Zone once again!
“Sardinia is one of the world’s ‘Blue Zones,’ where people are likely to live to 100,” says Gorin. In fact, according to a report from UC Davis Integrative Medicine, Sardinia was dubbed the “place where people live the longest in the world” when 20 centenarians lived in this Italian village from 1996 to 2016.
“The Sardinian Diet emphasizes on the foods barley, goat’s milk, fennel, tomatoes, fava beans, and almonds,” says Gorin. And many of the foods on this longevity diet are beneficial for better aging.
“Fava beans, for example, offer fiber and protein, while almonds provide healthy fat, fiber, and protein,” she says. Fennel may help lower cholesterol levels, leading to a healthier heart due its fiber content. Plus, this licorice-tasting green vegetable also contains potassium, which has been found to improve risk factors for cardiovascular and kidney disease, according to researchers from University of Southern California in 2017.
Then there’s whole-grain, fiber-rich barley, which — thanks to its phytochemicals and folate — has been shown to lower cholesterol levels and boost antioxidant levels, two health benefits that help combat obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Food and Drug Analysis. Plus, back in 2007, medical researchers from University of Granada found that certain properties in goat’s milk may help prevent bone demineralization, which can lower the risk of bone fractures.
This post was written by Amy Capetta.