I'm A Nutritionist: These Are My 6 All-Time Favorite Foods For Longevity
To increase our longevity, we want to explore which foods and dietary habits turn down the dial and which turn it up. We should also examine the lifestyle traits of populations who have been nurturing the biological processes responsible for optimal cellular aging for centuries.
This idea of eating like people who are living proof of longevity is not a new concept and is in line with advice from world-leading longevity scientists such as Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D.; Valter Longo, Ph.D.; and David Sinclair, Ph.D. Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and good amounts of omega-3s from fish, nuts, seeds or algae, while minimizing meat, dairy, eggs, and refined carbohydrates will not only improve your odds of living more years in good health but will likely add more years to your life, too.
By now, given what we have learned about the ability of fiber to promote a healthy body weight and protect us against developing various chronic diseases, it's probably not surprising to learn that those who add more fiber to their diet also add more years to their lives1.
In fact, a 2014 meta-analysis including over 1.7 million participants showed that for every 10-gram increase in fiber per day, the risk of premature death was lowered by 11%. Given that fewer than 20% of Australians2 reach the suggested daily target for dietary fiber (28 to 38 grams per day)—and the average American is eating only about 16 grams of fiber3 daily—this represents a great opportunity to make changes in our diet that will help us to live longer. And the best place to get fiber is a wide variety of whole plant foods.
If you take only one recommendation (of course, I hope you take more than that!), it should be swapping as much as possible, preferably all, of your meat for legumes. This will instantly ramp up the amount of plant protein and fiber in your diet and improve your chances of living a longer, healthier life.
For every 20 grams (or 0.7 ounces) per day increase in legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas, and black beans, you could decrease your risk of premature death by 7 to 8%. Just 20 grams!
Fruits and vegetables
Do you want the good news first or the better news? Let's start with the good. Regular consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with greater longevity, with a recent meta-analysis of 95 cohorts from around the world finding that for every 200-gram (or 7-ounce) increase in fruits and vegetables per day, participants enjoyed a 10% lower risk of premature death.
The better news? Maximum benefit was seen at 800 grams (or 28 ounces) per day—a 31% lower risk of premature death—with the overachievers being apples, berries, citrus fruits, cruciferous vegetables, leafy green vegetables, pears, and potatoes.
Nuts and seeds
There is overwhelming evidence showing nut and seed consumption is associated with a longer life4. Nuts and seeds are jam-packed with nutrition (heart-healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients) and, despite what many may presume, their consumption is associated with a healthy body weight, decreased risk of chronic disease, and a longer life5.
How many servings per day or week is associated with benefit? One study that combined two cohorts with over 120,000 participants followed for over two decades identified that compared with participants not eating nuts, those consuming seven or more 28-gram servings per week had a 20% lower risk of premature death4. That is a small handful a day.
Two of my favorite nuts are walnuts and pistachios. Walnuts are rich in antioxidants—the richest of all the common types of nuts—and pistachios are a potent natural source of melatonin6, a hormone that helps synchronize our sleep/wake cycle with the night and day, which is particularly beneficial for people experiencing circadian rhythm issues and jet lag.
Every three servings (of around 30 grams each) of whole grains, such as oats, brown rice, rye, buckwheat, and wild rice, was shown by a large meta-analysis of 11 observational studies to reduce the risk of premature death by 17%7. This effect was observed up to a total of around seven servings per day.
Given that the average Australian consumes less than two servings of whole grains per day, and the average American less than one serving per day, I'm sure you will agree that this is another quick win for our longevity.
Coffee and tea
One of the more frequent questions I get is: "Is coffee healthy?" The good news for my caffeine-loving friends is that it certainly seems to be. Numerous meta-analyses of observational studies show regular consumption of coffee, up to four cups per day, is associated with reduced risk of various chronic diseases and improved life span8.
As decaffeinated coffee is associated with similar improvements, the benefits of coffee have widely been attributed to its rich polyphenol content—molecules with antioxidant properties. In fact, in a study looking at 238 beverages, a double espresso had the highest antioxidant content9—six times more than green tea and four times more than red wine. Trials conducted on mice have shown that polyphenols in coffee stimulate autophagy10, providing a possible explanation for these observed findings.
If you're not a fan of coffee, the good news is that the polyphenols in tea have also been shown to induce autophagy11. Freshly brewed green, black, or matcha tea seems to be your best bet. If you want to take your tea longevity game to the next level, add some turmeric powder, which contains a potent polyphenol called curcumin, that will dial up autophagy even further.
Adapted from The Proof Is in the Plants by Simon Hill. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Life Australia © 2021. All rights reserved.
Simon Hill is a nutritionist and qualified physiotherapist. He completed a Bachelor of Physiotherapy and immediately began working as a Sports Physiotherapist in Melbourne both at a leading private practice and with professional AFL & VFL footballers. He received his post-graduate degree in Nutrition at Cornell University.
Hill is the founder of the hugely popular Plant Proof podcast and blog of the same name, and he is the author of The Proof Is In The Plants. He is also the plant-based food contributor to Chris Hemsworth’s fitness app, Centr, and in 2019 he opened a plant-based restaurant, Eden, in his Sydney neighborhood of Bondi.