Is your diet the key to longevity? Find out why eating right just may mean aging right, too.

By Elizabeth M. Ward, MS
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

Aging: everyone does it, yet some people seem relatively unaffected by getting older. Could good nutrition be the key to a healthier, longer life?

Does Aging Equal Illness?

“Aging is often associated with the development of one or more chronic diseases, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

It’s not always just a matter of time before you have a heart attack or stroke, get type 2 diabetes or cancer, break a hip because of osteoporosis, or develop Alzheimer’s, even though these conditions are often associated with aging, Blumberg says.

Your risk for disease and disability increases with inadequate physical activity, genetic susceptibility, and poor diet.

Aging: Defy It With Diet

So what’s the best eating plan for preventing, delay, or minimizing the conditions associated with aging, including inflamed joints, flagging memory, and failing eyesight?

“The most beneficial diets rely heavily on fresh vegetables, fruits, and legumes — foods that are naturally lower in calories and packed with nutrients,” says Bradley Willcox, MD, MPH, co-author of The Okinawa Diet Plan and professor of geriatrics at the University of Hawaii.

Experts suspect the antioxidant compounds found in produce, legumes, and whole grains are largely responsible for holding back the march of time.

Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, and other compounds, including polyphenols and anthocyanins, battle free radicals — unstable forms of oxygen that damage cell function. Free radicals form from normal metabolism. Your body also produces them in response to strong ultraviolet rays from the sun; air pollution; smoking; and secondhand smoke.

The buildup of free radicals contributes to the aging process and to the development of a number of age-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and inflammatory conditions, including osteoarthritis. What’s worse, aging increases free radical production. That means your diet should be healthier than ever with the passage of time.

The question, of course, is how do we do that?

Anti-Aging Nutrition

Antioxidants generate a lot of buzz when it comes to longevity, but aging well takes more. You must optimize a myriad of beneficial nutrients, including protein, calcium, and vitamin D, and minimize detrimental dietary components including saturated and trans fats.

While none of these foods is the “Fountain of Youth,” including them on a regular basis as part of a balanced diet can reduce the toll time takes on your body.

Nuts

Nuts are cholesterol-free protein sources, and are worthy substitutes for fatty meats. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in a group of nearly 35,000 women, those who ate foods rich in vitamin E, including nuts, lowered their risk of having a stroke.

Top picks:

Almonds for their high vitamin E levels; pecans, for their antioxidants; and walnuts, for omega-3s.

Tips:

# Top breakfast cereals, yogurt, salads, and cooked vegetables with an ounce of chopped nuts.
# Snack on an ounce of whole almonds (about 24) for almost half the vitamin E you need for the day.
# Enjoy a nut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread.
# Concoct a smoothie by blending a medium frozen banana, 1/2 cup plain fat-free yogurt, 1/4 cup chopped walnuts, and 2 teaspoons sugar (optional).

Fish

According to the American Heart Association, fish harbors omega-3 fats that reduce the risk of plaque buildup in your arteries; decrease blood triglyceride (fat) levels; help lower blood pressure; and lessen the odds of sudden death. Fish is a wise protein choice because of its relatively low saturated fat and cholesterol content.

Top picks:

Salmon, sardines, and canned tuna are among the fish with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Tips:

# Have at least two fish meals a week instead of fatty meats.
# Add canned light tuna or canned salmon to salads instead of chicken or cheese.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and beneficial plant compounds. It’s also free of the trans fats found in some margarines and other processed foods, and that’s a good thing. A study published in the journal Neurology found that among healthy people 65 and older, the higher the saturated and trans fat intake, the greater the cognitive decline during a six-year period.

Top pick:

The extra virgin variety. A recent report in the Annals of Internal Medicine found extra-virgin olive oil more beneficial than other types for increasing the high-density lipoprotein levels (HDL or good cholesterol) in men.

Extra-virgin olive oil also offers beneficial levels of oleocanthal, a compound that mimics the effects of anti-inflammatory medications including aspirin and ibuprofen.

Tips:

It’s good for you, but don’t go overboard; olive oil is caloric. Limit total oil consumption to 7 teaspoons daily (assuming all of the added fat you use is from olive oil) on a 2,000-calorie diet; 5 for a 1,600-calorie plan.

# Make salad dressing with one part olive oil and three parts balsamic vinegar.
# Choose olive oil instead of butter or margarine.
# Lightly coat chopped broccoli, sweet or white potato, or carrots with olive oil and roast on a baking sheet at 400 degrees until done.

Fruits and Vegetables

Produce provides fiber, vitamins, and minerals, as well as hundreds of anti-aging phytonutrients. When it comes to age-defying properties, some produce is better than others, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s tests for antioxidant activity.

Still, any fruit and vegetable is better than none. People who take in the most produce — upwards of 10 servings a day — have higher levels of antioxidants in their bloodstream, which probably translates to better aging. Produce-lovers also have stronger bones, thanks to the magnesium and potassium that fruits and vegetables supply (dark greens are also rich in vitamin K, necessary to bolster bones).

Top picks:

Fruit: Blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, apples, and cherries.

Vegetables: Kale, spinach, broccoli, artichokes, avocado, asparagus, cauliflower, sweet potato, carrots, pumpkin, and onions.

Tips:

# Include berries at least once daily on top of breakfast cereals, in smoothies or salads, or snack on them as is.
# Add dried cranberries or cherries to cooked whole grains.
# Make a quick guacamole by mixing a ripe avocado and large, diced tomato with 1 tablespoon each of olive oil, fresh chopped cilantro leaves, and finely chopped onions.
# Prepare a pumpkin smoothie with 1 cup canned pumpkin, 1/2 cup low-fat milk, and ground cinnamon and sugar to taste. Heat the remainder of the can as a side dish. Add chopped frozen kale or spinach to soups and pasta dishes.

Legumes

Legumes are packed with complex carbohydrates and fiber to ensure steadier blood glucose and insulin levels, and they provide a cholesterol-free source of protein. Legumes are also packed with antioxidants.

Top picks:

From black beans to soy beans, they’re all good for you.

Tips:

# Add beans to soups, salad, egg and pasta dishes
# Puree cooked beans (includes canned) and add to soups or stews
# Snack on bean dips and fresh vegetables or whole grain crackers
# Munch roasted soy nuts or thawed edamame (green soy beans)
# Substitute firm tofu for meat in vegetable stir-fry dishes

Whole Grains

Whole grains retain more of their natural nutrients, particularly age-defying vitamin E, fiber, and B vitamins, than refined varieties. They are also a wealth of antioxidant compounds.

Top picks:

Quinoa, millet, barley, oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, cracked wheat, wild rice.

Tips:

# Wrap sandwiches in whole-wheat tortillas instead of white
# Choose whole-grain cereal for breakfast and snacks
# Try wild or brown rice or whole-wheat pasta
# Add leftover cooked whole grains to soups

Low-Fat Dairy

Dairy foods are excellent sources of bone-strengthening calcium. They also supply protein that bolsters bones and muscle, and is needed for peak immune function.

Top picks:

Milk, either 1% low-fat or fat-free. Milk is fortified with vitamin D, necessary for calcium absorption. Adequate levels of vitamin D may reduce prostate, colon, and breast cancer.

Tips:

# Sip café au lait or cappuccino made from decaffeinated coffee and fat-free milk
# Make mashed potatoes with fat-free evaporated milk
# Enjoy a smoothie made with milk, berries, and crushed ice
# Indulge a chocolate craving with fat-free chocolate milk

Fight Fat, Live Longer?

It’s not only what you eat when it comes to stalling the aging process. Calories count, too.

“Being overweight stresses your heart, blood vessels, and joints, accelerating age-related diseases,” says Willcox.

Excess body fat also plays a role in the development of dementia, certain cancers, and eye diseases, including cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

Cutting a few hundred calories a day from your regular eating plan may be all it takes to make it into your 80s or 90s in relatively good health.

That’s what Willcox and his colleagues found when they related eating habits to death rates among 2,000 nonsmoking men. In his study, the men who consumed an average of 1,900 calories per day — about 15% below the average for the entire group — were less likely to die over the 36-year study period.

Nobody knows exactly how a lower calorie diet works to lengthen life. Perhaps the secret lies in a slower metabolism that comes with eating less food. A reduced metabolic rate means your body produces fewer free radicals.

Calorie reduction plans also lower the body’s core temperature and insulin levels, two indicators of longevity. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that overweight people who cut their daily calorie intake by up to 25% were more likely to have a lower core body temperature and normal fasting levels of insulin in their blood.

Aging: We’re all doing it. Perhaps combining a diet rich in “anti-aging” foods with fewer calories overall may help us do it better — and live longer.

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The Secrets of Longevity

National Geographic Magazine features the research of the doctors behind the Okinawa Diet.

An exerpt from the cover story by Dan Beuttner follows…

The first thing you notice about Ushi Okushima is her laugh. It begins in her belly, rumbles up to her shoulders, and then erupts with a hee-haw that fills the room with pure joy. I first met Ushi five years ago at her home in Okinawa, and now it’s that same laugh that draws me back to her small wooden house in the seaside village of Ogimi.

This rainy afternoon she sits snugly wrapped in a blue kimono. A heroic shock of hair is combed back from her bronzed forehead revealing alert, green eyes. Her smooth hands lie serenely folded in her lap. At her feet sit her friends, Setsuko and Matsu Taira, cross-legged on a tatami mat, sipping tea.

Since I last visited Ushi, she’s taken a new job, tried to run away from home, and started wearing perfume. Predictable behavior for a young woman, perhaps, but Ushi is 103. When I ask about the perfume, she jokes that she has a new boyfriend, then claps a hand over her mouth before unleashing one of her blessed laughs.

With an average life expectancy of 78 years for men and 86 years for women, Okinawans are among the world’s longest lived people. More important, elders living in this lush subtropical archipelago tend to enjoy years free from disabilities. Okinawans have a fifth the heart disease, a fourth the breast and prostate cancer, and a third less dementia than Americans, says Craig Willcox of the The Okinawa Centenarian Study.

What’s the key to their success? “Ikigai certainly helps:” Willcox offers. The word translates roughly to “that which makes one’s life worth living.” Older Okinawans, he says, possess a strong sense of purpose that may act as a buffer against stress and diseases such as hypertension. Many also belong to a Okinawan-style moai, a mutual support network that provides financial, emotional, and social help throughout life.

A lean diet may also be a factor. “A heaping plate of Okinawan vegetables, tofu, miso soup, and a little fish or meat will have fewer calories than a small hamburger;” says Makoto Suzuki of the The Okinawa Centenarian Study. “And it will have many more healthy nutrients.” What’s more, many Okinawans who grew up before World War II never developed the tendency to overindulge. They still live by the Confucian-inspired adage “hara hachi bu–eat until your stomach is 80 percent full.”

And they grow much of their own food. Taking one look at the gardens kept by Okinawan centenarians, Greg Plotnikoff, a traditional-medicine researcher at the University of Minnesota, called them “cabinets of preventive medicine.” Herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables, such as Chinese radishes, garlic, scallions, cabbage, turmeric, and tomatoes, he said, “contain compounds that may block cancers before they start.”

Ironically, for many older Okinawans this diet was born of hardship. Ushi Okushima grew up barefoot and poor. Her family scratched a living out of Ogimi’s rocky terrain, growing sweet potatoes, which formed the core of every meal. To celebrate the New Year, her village butchered a pig, and everyone got a morsel of pork.

During World War II, when U.S. warships shelled Okinawa, Ushi and Setsuko, whose husbands had been conscripted into the Japanese Army, fled to the mountains with their children. “We experienced terrible hunger;” Setsuko recalls.

Ushi now wakes every morning at six and eats a small breakfast of milk, bananas, and tomatoes. Until very recently she grew most of her food ( she gave up gardening when she took a job). But her tradition-honored daily rituals haven’t changed: morning prayers to her ancestors, tea with friends, lunch with family, an afternoon nap, a sunset social hour with friends, and before bed a cup of sake infused with the herb mugwort. “It helps me sleep:” she says.

Back in Ushi’s house we’re finishing our tea. Outside, dusk is falling; rain patters on the roof. Ushi’s daughter, Kikue, who is 78 and finds little amusement in the attention her mother draws, shoots me a glare that I take to mean “you’ve overstayed your welcome.” (When Ushi ran away from home, she was actually fleeing an argument with Kikue. She packed a bag and boarded a bus without telling her daughter. A relative caught up with her in a town 40 miles away.)

Ushi, Setsuko, and Matsu take the cue and fall silent in unison. These women have shared each other’s fortunes and endured each other’s sorrows for nearly a century and now seem to communicate wordlessly.

What is Ushi’s ikigai, I ask — that powerful sense of purpose that older Okinawans are said to possess?

“It’s her longevity itself;” answers her daughter. “She brings pride to our family and this village, and now feels she must keep living even though she is often tired.” I look to Ushi for her own answer. “My ikigai is right here,” she says with a slow sweep of her hand that takes in Setsuko and Matsu. “If they die, I will wonder why I am still living.”

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