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6 Foods to Eat (and Avoid) for Longevity

October 4, 2013
Andrea N. Giancoli

The foods you choose - fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish - can help you fend off life-shortening diseases and conditions.

We aim to eat right for optimal health and to ward off debilitating, chronic diseases that can shorten our lifespan. Indeed, heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes are among the leading causes of death in the U.S., and diet can play a central role in promoting or preventing these diseases.

Eat your fruits and vegetables

Given the recent press highlighting the science-based benefits of vegetarian and Mediterranean diets, including decreased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers, it should come as no surprise that eating patterns abundant in plant foods, like fruits and vegetables, offer the best dietary defense against chronic disease and premature death. This is not to say that animal foods need to be excluded; rather they ought to take up less space on our plates and be chosen wisely.

Beyond produce: other dietary disease fighters

While there's little doubt fruits and vegetables promote health, there are other dietary disease fighters to put on the longevity plate as well: Whole grains, nuts, legumes and fatty fish have earned their place at the table, and here's why.

Whole grains: "Eating more whole grains has been associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and some types of cancer," says Kate Marsh, Adv.A.P.D., C.D.E., Ph.D., nutrition expert at Northside Nutrition and Dietetics in Sydney, Australia, and author of a 2012 review on the health implications of vegetarian diets, published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.

How much to eat? The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for making at least half of your grain foods whole grains. Six ounces of grain foods are recommended for a 2,000 calorie diet (the average calorie requirement for adults), thus at least three servings should come from whole grains.

Nuts: "Regular nut consumption is linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, CVD and metabolic syndrome (a clustering of risk factors that raise the risk of CVD and diabetes)," Marsh tells EN. How much to eat? A 2005 review in the Journal of Nutrition concluded 50 - 100 grams (about 2 - 3.5 ounces) of nuts eaten most days of the week significantly reduced total and LDL ("bad") cholesterol, which can help fend off life-shortening heart disease.

Legumes: Marsh points to studies showing that bean eaters have a lower risk of developing CVD, diabetes and cancer. A 2004 analysis in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that bean consumption was a strong predictor of longevity in the elderly, and a 2013 review in the Journal of Medicinal Food supported a role for legumes in the prevention of cardiometabolic risk. How much to eat? A cup-and-a-half of cooked legumes (beans, lentils, and peas) per week is suggested for a 2,000 calorie diet by the USDA.

Fatty fish: A wealth of research has found that regularly consuming fish, particularly fatty fish like salmon and trout high in omega-3 fatty acids, decreases the risk of heart disease death. Even better news, a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine this year reported that higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were associated with lower risk of death from all causes. How much to eat? The American Heart Association recommends eating two 3.5-ounce servings of fish per week.

Foods that inhibit longevity

While a plant-based diet has been shown to be protective, following a Western style diet can up your chances of chronic disease and premature death. The American Journal of Medicine revealed such findings in May, demonstrating that a steady intake of fried foods, sweets, processed and red meat, refined grains, and high-fat dairy does not bode well for longevity and quality of life in advanced age. With this in mind, EN takes a closer look at two aspects of the Western diet that have grabbed headlines recently due to their link to increased mortality.

Red and processed meat: Both are linked to total cause mortality, but processed meats, such as salami, sausages, bacon, packaged lunch meats, and hotdogs - even in small amounts - carry a higher risk. Research published in the journal BMC Medicine in March 2013 found the risk started to be significantly increased among those who consumed more than 40 grams (about an ounce-and-a-half) a day, according to study author Sabine Rohrmann, Ph.D., M.P.H., head of the Department of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Zurich. "Processed meats are higher in sodium than fresh meats and high sodium intake is a factor related to CVD," explains Rohrmann. Furthermore, the heme iron and nitrites in red and processed meats may form compounds that promote cancer.

Sodium: This mineral stands out because of its connection to high blood pressure (hypertension), which elevates the risk for stroke and heart attack.

Excessive salt intake is also linked to stomach and esophageal cancer. The average American consumes 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day, much of it from processed foods. This is well above the Dietary Guidelines recommendation of no more than 2,300 mg (about 1 teaspoon of salt) for healthy adults 50 and under. Earlier this year, a report in the journal Hypertension estimated that a gradual sodium reduction over a 10-year period down to an average of 2,200 milligrams a day in the American diet would prevent up to half a million deaths.

What's the bottom line on how to eat for a long, full life? Fill your plate with whole plant foods, eat fish at least twice a week, cut down on sodium, minimize red meat and avoid processed meats as much as possible.