The Meaning of Longevity Foods
How Nutrition Can Impact Longevity
The Best Foods for Longevity & How to Eat Them
Living a long, healthy life is often the result of consistently prioritizing healthy habits like exercise, social interaction, activities that curb stress, and—last but not least—good nutrition. In fact, only about 25 percent of the variation in human lifespan is influenced by genetics.
But what does it really mean to eat for longevity? As with most things, the answer is nuanced. There’s no single diet that will absolutely add years to your life. But, certain eating patterns, and some specific foods and food groups, have been shown to curb risk of age-related chronic disease and promote physiological processes that support healthy aging.
Here, with the help of three longevity-minded nutrition experts, we break down the way key nutrients impact longevity, plus 12 foods that could add healthy years to your life.
The Meaning of Longevity Foods
There’s no official definition of a longevity food, but for the purposes of this article, the term refers to foods that have been associated with longer life or reduced mortality, reduced risk of chronic diseases that lead to early death, and improvements in biomarkers related to chronic diseases such as cholesterol, blood sugar, inflammation, oxidative stress, and immune function.
While longevity foods come from a variety of different food groups (which is key for promoting overall nutrient diversity), one overarching principle of diets linked to long life is that they consist predominantly of whole or minimally processed, nutrient-dense plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and smaller amounts of quality animal foods such as omega-3 rich fish, according to Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, CSSD, a plant-based sports and performance nutrition coach based in Los Angeles.
“From the research, we know this type of eating pattern is linked to longevity, but there are likely several reasons why,” says Sass, adding that this “may include maximizing nutrient intake, optimizing gut microbiome composition and immune function, reducing inflammation, improving mental health (which, in turn, affects physical health), and improving sleep.”
How Nutrition Can Impact Longevity
The Role of Macronutrients in Extending Lifespan
Macronutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—these are the nutrients that we need in larger quantities (compared to micronutrients) and that provide us with energy in the form of calories.
Per the experts we spoke with, a mix of macros at most meals may be the best way to maximize nutrient diversity. “A typical plate might include a variety of colorful vegetables, 3-4 oz of protein (beans, fish, poultry), a source of healthy fats (nuts, olive oil, avocado, ghee), and a whole grain,” says Ella Davar, RD, CDN, longevity dietitian and gut health expert.
All three macronutrients play unique roles in the body and are essential for life. But, the source of these macros is what’s really important when it comes to moving the needle on your lifespan.
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Carbohydrates are an amazing source of energy. Compared to fats and protein, the body is much more efficient at converting carbs into ATP, a form of cellular energy that powers countless physiological processes necessary for survival. But not all carbs are created equal. In fact, a 2022 research review found that diets with moderate to high levels of carbohydrates were associated with longevity—but only if they were unrefined carbohydrates (think: whole and minimally processed plant foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains). What do these carb sources have in common? Fiber.
Fiber, a form of carbohydrate, has been associated with a decreased risk of death from any cause in several studies (like this one and this one). Scientists have hypothesized a few reasons why: Fiber has been shown to improve cholesterol levels, support balanced blood sugar, promote insulin sensitivity, help keep you full, and lower blood pressure—which could curb the risk of life-sapping chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Fiber also feeds the healthy bacteria in your gut microbiome.
Protein is also important for longevity and maintaining strength as you age. When you eat protein from food, it’s broken down into individual amino acids, and these amino acids are used to form the structural elements of your body such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and collagen. Without adequate protein, you may be at increased risk for sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss), which, in turn, may impair physical activity and increase risk of falls and death. Consuming adequate protein also helps prevent dangerous spikes in blood sugar, which can promote diabetes and damage to the blood vessels and kidneys over time.
Numerous studies suggest that getting sufficient, but not excessive, protein from predominantly plant sources may be optimal for longevity for most individuals—potentially due to their lower saturated fat and higher fiber content than meat. But certain groups such as highly active individuals and the elderly may benefit from slightly higher animal protein intake to support muscle recovery and growth and prevent frailty, says Davar.
Dietary fats are important for promoting satiety and balancing blood sugar, helping your body’s cells function properly, producing hormones like estrogen and progesterone, absorption of vital nutrients that curb inflammation, support immune function, and much more. But the type of fat matters a lot when it comes to longevity. Research has shown that eating unsaturated fats in place of most saturated fats (found predominantly in animal-derived foods like fatty cuts of meat and full-fat dairy) is associated with reduced risk of death from any cause, as well as reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and cancer. One reason: High intake of saturated fat contributes to elevated LDL cholesterol—which can promote arterial plaque buildup and inflammation.
Specific unsaturated fats like omega-3s (found in walnuts, chia seeds, and fatty fish) have been associated with benefits such as lower triglycerides and reduced risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke; and monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil, avocados, and almonds), have been associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease, a leading cause of heart attack.
How Micronutrients & Antioxidants Contribute to Longevity
Micronutrients are just as important for life span—these vitamins (A, D, E, K, C, and eight B vitamins) and minerals (e.g. magnesium, calcium, zinc, selenium) participate in all sorts of reactions crucial for maintaining life and optimizing health. Many serve as helper molecules that assist in the breakdown of macronutrients to supply the body with energy, amino acids, and other building blocks, while others help properly regulate gene expression, without which you’d be at elevated risk for a broad range of diseases from cancer to autoimmune conditions to diabetes.
Certain micronutrients also function as antioxidants. This is important since natural metabolic processes in the body and exposure to certain things in our environment contribute to the production of reactive oxygen species (“free radicals”), which—if allowed to accumulate—promote oxidative stress that accelerates aging. Fortunately, many vitamins and minerals both directly and indirectly neutralize free radicals. Plant antioxidants, while not technically essential for survival, also appear to have “age-delaying” functions in part because they reduce the accumulation of long-term oxidative damage.
When your body doesn’t get sufficient levels of micronutrients and these other beneficial compounds, it may divert its limited resources away from important maintenance processes such as DNA repair so they can be used for processes needed for immediate survival. Focusing on dietary diversity and ample intake of plant foods is a great way to optimize your intake.
The Best Foods for Longevity & How to Eat Them
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So what longevity foods should you absolutely prioritize for your health? These ones pack an extra nutritional punch.
Nuts offer healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, micronutrients, and antioxidants—and walnuts, specifically, provide the highest levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fats and antioxidants. “One study that tracked over 7,000 men and women for nearly five years found that, compared to non-nut eaters, those who consumed more than 3 one-ounce servings of nuts per week had a 39 percent lower overall mortality risk,” says Sass. (This reduced risk jumped to 45 percent when those nuts were walnuts.)
Try it: Add nuts to oatmeal or smoothies, snack on apple slices with nut butter, or sprinkle nuts on salads, stir fries, and cooked veggies. You can also combine walnuts with sauteed minced mushrooms as a meat alternative to fill corn tortillas, suggests Sass.
Mushrooms, both dried and fresh varieties, are commonly consumed in Japanese diets, which are often linked to longevity (think: the Okinawan diet). They’re a great source of prebiotic fibers, which feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut, according to Asako Miyashita MS, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian and expert on Japanese foods and dietary principles. Supporting gut health, in turn, helps regulate inflammation and immune function—both of which support healthy aging. Mushrooms also contain the antioxidants ergothione and glutathione, which help protect cells and counteract oxidative damage.
Try this: Mushrooms pack great umami flavor and offer up a hearty texture when cooked. When a recipe calls for ground beef, consider swapping half for finely chopped mushrooms. You can also make your own mushroom chips or roast them up for a flavorful side.
3. Green Tea
Green tea, particularly matcha (which consists of whole ground green tea leaves), is a great source of vitamin C and polyphenol antioxidants like epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), says Miyashita. Numerous studies link green tea consumption to benefits such as reduced risk of Azheimer’s and dementia, obesity, cancer, and heart disease. It may even slow skin aging. “In one study of older Japanese adults, those who drank the most green tea were 76 percent less likely to die during the six year study period,” says Sass. “Another found that among over 40,000 Japanese adults followed, women who drank at least five cups of green tea a day had a 23 percent lower risk of death from any cause over an 11-year period.”
Try this: In addition to sipping hot or iced green tea, consider using brewed green tea as the liquid in smoothies, oatmeal, or overnight oats—or even use it to steam veggies or whole grain rice, suggests Sass.
All fruit is great, but berries pack an extra punch. “Berries like blueberries, cranberries, and black currants, are packed with antioxidants that may protect against age-related diseases,” says Davar. The polyphenol antioxidant compounds in berries have been associated with improvements in inflammation, oxidative stress, and insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes) and may help defend against cancer, neurodegenerative conditions, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome. Interestingly, polyphenol antioxidants also “shift the composition of gut microbes in ways that support anti-inflammation,” says Sass. Plus, berries are rich in fiber—a cup of raspberries has 8 grams, around 30 percent of your daily recommended intake.
Try this: Add berries to yogurt, cottage cheese, or oatmeal. Or blend them into a longevity friendly smoothie with dark leafy greens, plain yogurt, and a flavor booster like ginger.
5. Fatty Fish
Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies are the top dietary sources of omega-3 fats, which support heart and brain health, says Davar. As previously mentioned, these fats help lower triglycerides and reduce risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke. They’re also thought to facilitate better communication between brain cells, which is important for brain function and healthy brain aging. One study found that people with higher omega-3 blood levels had an increase in life expectancy of nearly 5 years.
6. Dark Leafy Greens
Dark leafy greens like arugula, spinach, and Swiss chard are a fantastic source of carotenoid antioxidants, and diets high in carotenoid-rich veggies have been associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Leafy greens are also a good source of folate (vitamin B9), which supports cardiovascular health and DNA synthesis, and vitamin K, which indirectly supports communication between brain cells. Eating just one serving of dark leafy greens daily has been shown to help slow age-related cognitive decline.
Try it: In addition to salads, try blending leafy greens in a smoothie or sauteing them into a breakfast scramble. For larger leafy greens like Swiss chard, you can even use them as a sandwich wrap alternative.
Avocados are a great source of fiber (7 grams, or 25 percent of your daily recommended intake, per half avocado), along with folate, carotenoid antioxidants, cholesterol-lowering phytosterols, and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Higher intake of monounsaturated fats is associated with an 11 percent reduced risk of overall mortality. It may not take much avocado to have a benefit either—other studies suggest that replacing half a serving a day of butter, margarine, processed meats, or cheese with avocado was associated with up to a 22 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Try it: Mash up avocado and use it as a mayo alternative for your next sandwich or chicken salad. To satisfy a sweet tooth, whip it into a rich and creamy avocado pudding with a bit of cocoa powder, vanilla extract, and maple syrup.
8. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Speaking of monounsaturated fats—EVOO is another fantastic source. This Mediterranean staple also contains a range of beneficial polyphenols, like hydroxytyrosol and oleocanthal, with powerful antioxidant effects. Preliminary research suggests that hydroxytyrosol indirectly aids autophagy—a process by which cells clear out their dysfunctional components in order to function more optimally. Because autophagy naturally declines with age, doing things to help turn it on could potentially promote longevity. Additionally, one study looking at the effects of olive oil consumption among 92,000 healthy men and women found that those who consumed the highest levels (just over a half a tablespoon per day) had a 19 percent reduced risk of death over a 28-year period compared to people who rarely consumed olive oil.
Try this: Use EVOO in homemade vinaigrettes, drizzle it over cooked whole grain dishes, and use it to stir-fry and saute veggies. Contrary to popular belief, you can cook with it — its antioxidants and monounsaturated fats actually help it resist degradation when heated.
9. Pulses (Beans, Lentils, Peas, Chickpeas)
There are so many good things to say about pulses (which are sometimes referred to as legumes). “Eating more pulses has been linked to an increase in overall nutrient intakes, extended longevity, and a reduced risk of several chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,” says Sass. Here’s how: “Pulses provide anti-inflammatory antioxidants, key minerals many adults fall short on, like potassium and magnesium, and they’re the highest fiber food group on the planet. [They’re] also rich in plant protein, and replacing animal protein with plant protein is a research-backed longevity strategy.”
Try this: Use beans or chickpeas in place of eggs for a breakfast scramble along with your favorite dark leafy green, enjoy a hearty lentil soup, scoop up hummus or bean dip with raw veggies, and opt for pastas made from pulse flours (think: chickpea pasta), recommends Sass.
10. Red Cabbage
Red or purple cabbage, along with other cruciferous vegetables—Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kale—are a potent source of sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates. Research has linked cruciferous vegetables to lower risk of several chronic diseases, including several types of cancer and neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases, possibly related to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of glucosinolates. In one study analyzing data from 134,796 adults, greater fruit and vegetable intake was associated with reduced risk of mortality, and the effect was particularly strong for cruciferous vegetables.
Try it: For a unique side dish, try roasted red cabbage—cut in half lengthwise, then slice each half into several ½-inch thick pieces, drizzle with EVOO, season, and roast until the edges start to caramelize.
Like mushrooms, seaweed is another culinary staple in Japan, the country with the top life expectancy in the world. These leafy greens of the ocean (nori, wakame, kombu, dulse, arame, and others) contain bioactive compounds such as fucoidans, which preliminary research suggests may counteract the hallmark of aging known as cellular senescence. Why that matters: Typically, when cells are damaged, the immune system efficiently clears them out. But as we age, immune function weakens and we accumulate an increasing amount of dysfunctional senescent cells that resist removal and release inflammatory chemicals that damage neighboring cells. This, in turn, accelerates disease processes that could shorten your lifespan. But, by consuming compounds that counter cellular senescence, you’re aiding in the removal of these longevity-sapping cells.
Try this: Try using seaweed snacks or nori sheets as replacements for sandwich wraps, experiment with dried seaweed flakes as an umami-packed seasoning, or make your own seaweed salad by rehydrating dried wakame.
12. Fermented Foods
Traditionally fermented foods—kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, natto (a fermented soybean dish), kvass, kombucha—contain good bacteria and other beneficial byproducts of fermentation that appear to support healthy aging. Fermented vegetables, for example, often contain lactic acid bacteria, which has been associated with alterations in the gut microbiome that support immune function. A recent study also found that eating six servings of fermented foods a day for 10 weeks increased the diversity of bacteria within the gut and simultaneously reduced levels of IL-6, a biomarker of inflammation that’s associated with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Try it: Getting a dose of fermented foods could be as simple as adding plain yogurt or kefir to a smoothie. Also consider adding some kimchi or sauerkraut to your next salad, sandwich, guacamole recipe, or baked sweet potato for a zesty bite.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.
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