Some things about life—and how long we get to enjoy it—are out of our control. But emerging nutrition science research, as well as data collected from people in their 90s and beyond, shows what, when, and how we eat has a profound influence on how long we live. Want to eat for a long and healthy life?
We’re compiled the most compelling and surprising tips here!
Broccoli, grapes, and salad
We’ll start with the scientific consensus: A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, high in nutrients and low in calories, is your best bet for a long life.
Need specifics? Eat more broccoli, grapes, and salad: Researchers have found that compounds in these three foods pack extra life-extending benefits.
These bite-sized fruit favorites are check full of antioxidants, known to boost immunity and stave off life-threatening disease. They’ll help you age gracefully as well. A 2012 study from Harvard University found that at least one serving of blueberries or two servings of strawberries each week may reduce the risk of cognitive decline in older adults.
At a Pennsylvania banquet celebrating centenarians last spring, Nancy Fisher, 107, attributed her long life to her faith… and her passion for garlic.
Fisher may be on to something, however: Studies have found that phytochemicals in garlic can halt the formation of carcinogenic chemicals in the body, and that women who eat more garlic have lower risk of certain colon cancers.
As delicious as it is healthy, this monounsaturated “good fat” is well known for its heart-health and longevity benefits. Studies also show that olive oil may also be linked to brain health and cancer prevention. Aim for two tablespoons a day.
Studies suggests that cruciferous vegetables like this one contain nutrients, such as fiber, vitamin C, and folate, that can help you cheat death. And that’s likely the case even if you’ve already had a close call: A study from Vanderbilt University found that breast cancer survivors in Shanghai who ate more cruciferae—specifically of the turnip, cabbage, and bok choy variety popular in China—had lower risks of death or cancer recurrence during the study period.
How to prevent heart disease, the largest killer in the United States, according to the latest report from the National Center of Health Statistics? Eat more foods that help keep your heart healthy, like avocados and others already on this list, and improve your odds of a long life. Avocados can lower your LDL “bad” cholesterol while raising your HDL “good” levels, and they help your body absorb heart-healthy vitamins like beta-carotene and lycopene.
Lycopene is also an important nutrient in the fight against cancer—the second leading cause of death in the United States. And there’s no better source than rosy red tomatoes. Eating them cooked, in pasta sauce, tomato soup, or chutney, actually increases the amount of carcinogen-fighting carotenoids your body is able to absorb.
Beans, beans, are good for your… life? In a 2004 study conducted on elderly people in Australia, Japan, Sweden, and Greece, researchers found that participants had a 7% to 8% reduction in death for every 20 grams of legumes they consumed daily. A diet rich in beans and legumes increases levels of the fatty acid butyrate, which can protect against cancer growth, according to a study from Michigan State University.
Grains and seeds
Getting more fiber—specifically by switching from refined bread and pasta to whole grains—can reduce your risk of death from any cause by 22%, according to a 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Experts say that fiber can protect against diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and obesity, and can reduce cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure.
Booze, in moderation
Several studies have suggested that small amounts of alcohol—no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women—can have heart-health benefits, and that moderate drinkers tend to live longer than heavier imbibers or teetotalers. A 2012 Harvard Medical School study also found that moderate drinking may also reduce men’s risk of death in the two decades following a heart attack.
If you want first-hand advice on longevity, listen to Tomoji Tanabe. The world’s oldest man from 2007 until his death at 113 in 2009 often told interviewers that his lifelong abstinence from alcohol was the key to his longevity. Tanabe’s favorite foods were miso soup with clams and fried shrimp. Surprise: he also drank milk every day.
Ok, a spot of whiskey
Raymonde and Lucienne Wattelade, who were certified as the world’s oldest twins in 2010 at age 98 (then later dethroned when an older pair emerged), say their drinks of choice keep them feeling young: Whiskey for Raymonde, and pastis, an anise-flavored liqueur, for Lucienne. The sisters, who were on the French gymnastics team in the 1930, also credit their good health to regular exercise, like dancing.
A strong immune system is an important part of living to a ripe old age, and for that you need lots of disease-fighting antioxidants. Health nutrition expert Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, swears by pureh tea —an earthy, rich variety that contains even more antioxidants than its better-known green counterpart. Steep a pureh tea bag for three to five minutes and serve with lemon and honey.
In April, 106-year-old Ethel Engstrom told the Pasadena Star News that she stays healthy by eating well and drinking about 12 cups of black coffee a day. You may not need that many to cheat death, however: A 2008 study from researchers at Harvard University found that, compared with non-coffee drinkers, women had an 18% lower risk of dying if they drank two to three cups a day, and 26% lower if they drank four to five cups a day. Those who drank six or more a day decreased their risk by 17%.
A 2012 study by the National Institutes of Health and AARP supports this theory. When researchers controlled for factors like smoking, drinking, and eating red meat, they found that coffee drinkers—both men and women—tended to live longer.
Eat chocolate, add a year to your life. Men who ate modest amounts of chocolate up to three times a month lived almost a year longer than those who didn’t in a 1999 Harvard study of more than 8,000 people. And in a 2009 study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, patients who had survived a heart attack were 44% less likely to die over the next eight years if they ate chocolate up to once a week, versus none at all. Other types of candy did not seem to have any effect on longevity. Preliminary studies have identified the most beneficial part of chocolate: flavonols, the antioxidant found in cocoa beans. To get the most flavonols, say researchers, stick with dark chocolate.
Less red meat
Going vegetarian a few times a week may lengthen your life. People who eat red meat every day have a higher risk of dying over a 10-year period than those who eat it less, according to a 2009 study from the University of North Carolina. (Most deaths in the study were from heart disease and cancer.) Burgers, steak, and pork were partially to blame, but processed meats—like bacon, ham, and hot dogs—also seemed responsible for shorter lifespans.
More white meat
In the same study, however, people who ate the most white meat—chicken, turkey, and fish—seemed to have a slightly lower risk of death during the study than those who ate the least.
Another more recent study, this one out of Harvard in March, also found that red meat consumption is linked with a greater risk of death from cancer, heart disease, and all causes. This one, however, also looked at the benefit of substituting healthier protein sources, such as fish, poultry, nuts, and legumes. Of all the swaps studied, the researchers found that trading a serving of beef or pork for one of nuts could reduce a person’s risk of death during middle age by 19%.
Corn, beans, and pork
Eat like a Costa Rican and you might boost your chances of living a long, healthy life. A 60-year-old man in Costa Rica is about twice as likely to reach age 90 as compared with men in the United States, France, or even Japan, according to author Dan Buettner and his research on blue zones around the world. Costa Ricans have a very active life and a strong work ethic, he says, as well as a diet that largely consists of corn, beans, pork, garden vegetables, and fruit they’ve grown themselves.
Red meat may be a no-no when it comes to longevity, but plant-based foods of the same hue are a definite yes. Eating fruits and vegetables in a variety of bold, bright colors is a good way to make sure you’re getting a good mix of nutrients, and experts say that red ones, specifically, can help you stay young. Among your best bets: red cabbage to guard against cancer and boost brain health, beet juice to lower blood pressure, and tomatoes to lower cholesterol.
The world’s oldest triathlete is still going strong at age 91, recently completing his 41st race in June. Arthur Gilbert, of Somerset, England, says he follows a balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables—and he especially loves bananas.
Salmon, tuna, and other oily fish can help patients with heart disease live longer, studies have shown, because their omega-3 fatty acids help fight dangerous inflammation that can damage our DNA. The same may be true for the rest of us, as well: A 2009 study from the University of Hawaii found that men who ate the most baked or boiled fish—as opposed to fried, dried, or salted—reduced their risk of heart-disease related death by 23% compared to those who ate the least. (The study also found that women who ate low-sodium soy sauce or tofu also saw heart-health benefits.)
While many experts say that organic foods are nutritionally the same as their conventionally grown counterparts, a few studies have shown that they may actually have more vitamins and minerals, after all. And a 2011 study from Newcastle University in the U.K. suggested that because of these added nutrients, switching to organic food can extend the average lifespan—by about 25 days for men and 17 days for women. Foods grown without pesticides have higher levels of vitamin C and other immunity-boosting antioxidants.
All but the last bite
Leave a little on your plate after every meal if you want to live to 100, suggests author Dan Buettner, who studies so-called Blue Zones: areas around the world where people tend to live longer and healthier. In Japanese culture, he says, people stop eating when they feel only 80% full—a practice that has helped the country earn a top spot on the world’s-oldest-people list.
Two meals a day
Walter Breuning of Great Falls, Montana was the world’s oldest man when he died in 2011 at age 114. He attributed his longevity to eating only two meals a day, reported the Daily Mail, because “that’s all you need.”
“I think you should push back from the table when you’re still hungry,” Breuning told USA Today in 2009. Breuning said he ate a big breakfast and lunch every day, skipped supper, drank lots of water, and ate plenty of fruit.
… or even less
Some people are willing to go even farther on their quest for eternal youth: Studies have shown that animals live longer if they eat only every other day, and a few diet programs have embraced this idea. (These types of diets are likely very difficult to follow, however, and not safe for people with any chronic health conditions.) Research from Washington University has also found that people who restrict their calorie intake have lower core temperatures—an indication that their bodies can operate as efficiently as possible.
Fish, tofu, edamame, and vegetables are staples of the traditional Japanese diet, and Japanese people have been credited with having some of the world’s longest lifespans. (Residents of Okinawa, a long-life blue zone, eat 60 to 120 grams of soy a day compared to practically zero grams for the average American.) Many experts believe that following the Japanese style of eating has weight-control as well as longevity benefits: As the book title says, “Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat.”
Healthy fats from fish, olive oil, and nuts meets lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and moderate amounts of wine in the Mediterranean diet popular in Greece and Italy. This combination has been linked again and again in studies to longer life, healthier hearts, and lower rates of cancer, obesity, and Alzheimer’s disease. Mediterranean cultures also tend to treat mealtime as an important social event, sitting down at the table with the whole family.
Also known as the Viking Diet or the Scandinavian Diet, this meal plan focuses on the staples of Nordic cuisine: cabbage, rye bread, root vegetables, oatmeal, and fish. One 12-year study found that the closer participants adhered to traditional Nordic diet guidelines, their risk of death dropped by 4 to 6 percent.
If all else fails, good old home cooking may just be your ticket to longer life. A 2012 study from Cambridge University found that people who cook up to five times a week had a 47% greater chance of staying alive over a 10-year period. Taking the bus to the supermarket to buy your ingredients might help, too: Grocery shopping and taking public transportation were also associated with a lower risk of dying.
Just because your favorite food’s not on this list doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a shorter life, however. Take Sister Cecilia Adorni of Hamden, Connecticut, who passed away in 2011 at age 103: At her birthday party that year, coworkers (yes, she was still working) told CBS 2 New York that Adorni liked to eat an occasional steak. “And when it comes to pepperoni pizza, they said, she can eat anyone under the table.”