About a year ago, three days after I turned 65, I suffered a health emergency that landed me in the hospital for 10 days. My doctor and wife told me for years to lose weight and alter my diet, but the stubborn, Neolithic, 1950s guy inside my head told me I didn’t have a problem and could eat whatever I wanted, which I did.
My time in the ICU got my attention, so I adopted a low-carb, low-cholesterol, low-fat, low-sugar diet. I lost more than 20 pounds. I feel better and have more energy; my vital signs have improved. Like many who have had a similar experience, I began to deeply explore the connection between longevity and diet now that I had become serious about living longer.
While overhauling my diet, I reviewed the literature on the connection between longevity — a road I wasn’t traveling most of my life — and healthy eating. While I wasn’t obese, didn’t have high blood pressure and didn’t smoke, I definitely had some metabolic issues I needed to address.
Adding an exercise plan, I stopped eating most white bread, pasta and rice. Then I cut back on meat, substituting fish and beans. I went from several beers a week to one a month. I cut out as much cholesterol as possible by avoiding processed meats and whole-milk dairy products. Most of my new diet consisted of vegetables and fruit.
If I needed another incentive, I found another one that appealed to my quest to live longer and help the environment: Recent research shows that low-meat, “Earth-friendly” diets are also good for the planet. Meat production is methane- and carbon-intensive, creating tons of greenhouse gases.
Vegetable and fruit growing is less impactful. Researchers found that “people who followed a more environmentally sustainable diet were 25% less likely to die during a follow-up period of over 30 years compared to those with a less sustainable diet.”
Save me, and save the planet. Sweet deal!
Did I adopt an ideal diet? My doctor liked what he saw, but that’s a hard question. I have a profound desire to stay out of the hospital, although there’s one caveat to keep in mind: There are as many “healthy diets” as there are economic and behavioral theories.
The ‘standard American diet’
They come and go like pop songs and can make your head spin. Boiled down, though, most diet longevity studies lambaste the “Standard American Diet” (SAD), which contributes to inflammation that may trigger diabetes, heart disease, strokes and possibly Alzheimer’s disease.
According to Houston Methodist Hospital, you probably know the usual suspects, from red and processed meats and refined “white” grains to snack foods and sodas.
Those who indulge in SAD should eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. “Vegetables should be the largest part of your meal,” recommends Kimberly Gomer, a licensed dietitian based in Palm Beach, Fla., who has been working with clients and reviewing research for the past 25 years.
She says SAD foods contribute to inflammation that can damage arteries and accelerate cell and DNA damage — and aging. While many may have a genome that is a program for several diseases, diet plays a considerable role in averting inflammatory diseases. “Genetics loads the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger,” Gomer notes.
Diet studies tell the story
There’s always a robust debate on what constitutes an ideal diet, although healthy diets share a lot of traits. An entire industry has reaped billions of dollars selling one approach or another.
The connection between those who live longer than average in “Blue Zones” and what they eat has some common threads:
- Considerable clinical evidence points to a diet dominated by vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts and whole grains, according to a recent meta-analysis published by the National Library of Medicine. “Changing from a typical diet to the optimized diet at age 60 years would increase longevity estimates by eight years for women and 8.8 years for men; 80-year-olds would gain 3.4 years,” the study found.
- Most studies found that reducing sugar, red meat and processed foods correlated highly with increased lifespans. Eating more fish, unprocessed grains, beans and low-fat dairy products were usually recommended in longevity diets.
- Decreasing food consumption, in general, was also linked to longer lifespans. Gorging at buffets and devouring platefuls of food does not contribute to longevity. “There are also gains to be made from decreasing the consumption of certain foods, including red meat and processed meat, which have been consistently reported to be harmful,” reports Lifespan.io, a non-profit foundation. “Under this model, reducing consumption from average Western levels (100 grams and 50 grams a day, respectively) to zero gives 1.6 additional years of life.
Remember that you can’t rely exclusively on a diet to enhance longevity. Other key factors cited in research include adequate sleep, exercise, positive social relationships and managing stress. And the rock-solid no-nos still include smoking, excessive stress, and drug and alcohol intake, reports Medical Health Today.
And no one diet will address your medical condition. Some may need to lose a lot of weight, while others may need to focus on lowering blood sugar and LDL, the “bad” cholesterol. So a longevity diet may not always concentrate on weight loss.
Obesity and other conditions may be triggered by what Dr. Peter Attia calls “metabolic dysfunction.” Attia, the author of “Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity,” observes, “Not everyone who is obese is unhealthy, and not everyone who is metabolically unhealthy is obese. There’s more to metabolic health than meets the eye.”
Rather than jumping headlong into a fad diet, try fine-tuning using scientific evidence to see whether specific dietary changes will add years to your life. Substituting plant-based food such as beans, whole grains, nuts and fruit for processed junk food is a good start.
Still, in search of a healthier diet that will prolong your life, you will be bombarded by a bevy of diet programs and highly promoted plans. The best first step is to consult your doctor to see if your metabolic function works well. If your doctor doesn’t, discuss or explore healthy nutrition, find one that does or seek the services of a licensed dietitian.
Finding a solid, healthy, longevity nutrition program will take work and uncomfortable adjustments because you must break old habits. I miss sausage, white bread and pizza. But I reward myself with the positive feeling of having more energy and mental alertness.
Be consistent and stick to your goals. “If you can’t sustain a plan,” Gomer notes, “it’s worthless.”
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, ©2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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