Does it seem like everyone’s telling you about things we shouldn’t eat?
“Avoid gluten,” “skip sugar,” “minimize dairy.” Phew!
We don’t blame you if you’re left wondering what, exactly, you should be eating.
We decided to investigate the best healthy foods you can eat to promote not only a healthy life but also a longer life.
What do we mean by longevity?
Longevity refers to so much more than mere lifespan.
We want to enjoy long-term health and avoid chronic illness, right?
To be able to enjoy life to the fullest, we want the energy and vitality to participate in the things we love with the people we love. We want not only to live as long as possible, but also to thrive as long as possible.
This is longevity.
How do we know what foods promote longevity?
To uncover the best longevity-promoting foods, we need only ask, “What do people in the blue zones eat?”
The “blue zones” is a concept developed by National Geographic Fellow and best-selling author Dan Buettner. They refer to five places in the world where people live the longest and are also the healthiest.
These longevity hotspots are: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.
The blue zones are home to traditional cultures, ones in which diet and lifestyle behaviors have remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Therefore, the dietary principles we observe in these areas have proven successful for generations, unlike many of our fad diets and superfoods-du-jour.
What are the top 10 longevity foods?
High in heart-healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats, nuts help improve cholesterol ratios by lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol. In fact, if Americans increased their consumption of nuts by 1 to 2 portions per week, it has been calculated that, within a year, we could prevent 90,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease. (1)
Besides healthy fats, nuts are packed with energizing protein, gut-health boosting fiber, cancer-fighting antioxidants, and immune-boosting vitamins and minerals. Some nuts and seeds–walnuts, flax seed, and chia seed–are also high in anti-inflammatory, brain-protective omega-3 fatty acids.
Add your favorite nuts and seeds to salads, oatmeal, or enjoy 1-2 handfuls a day as a super nutritious snack.
The go-to cooking oil in the blue zones, and an integral component of the Mediterranean Diet (ranked #1 by U.S. News for weight loss, healthy eating, and heart health), olive oil is a rich source of inflammation-fighting compounds like oleocanthal. Oleocanthal works similarly to ibuprofen (the active compound in Advil) in fighting inflammation. (2)
This powerhouse of antioxidants and fatty acids has been shown to promote lower risk of inflammation-related diseases including heart disease, weight gain, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and type 2 diabetes. (3)
Enjoy extra-virgin olive oil every day for cooking or drizzle it over salads and roasted vegetables. Olive oil is light and heat sensitive so be sure to store it in a cool dark place and never heat it above 375℉.
When it comes to heart health, anti-aging and longevity, beans are one of the best foods around.
People in the blue zones eat, on average, at least four times as many beans as Americans do: black beans in Nicoya; lentils, garbanzo, and white beans in the Mediterranean; and soybeans in Okinawa.
With more nutrients per gram than any food on earth, they are high in protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates–the kind that gives you stable energy without spiking your blood sugar. All of this, and inexpensive to boot.
You’ll want to eat at least half a cup of beans per day to get all the benefits of this plant-based protein source.
Blue zoners enjoy fresh, seasonal fruit of all kinds, but berries offer particularly notable health benefits.
Berries are loaded with health-promoting antioxidants like anthocyanins and resveratrol which help protect cells against oxidative stress caused by free radicals. In fact, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries have the highest antioxidant activity of commonly consumed fruits (4). Oxidative stress is the main culprit in age-related diseases like heart disease, cancer, and dementia.
Berries have also been shown to lower inflammation, improve blood sugar and insulin resistance, and lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
For an anti-aging dessert, enjoy a bowl of the classics like strawberries and blueberries, or snack on something a bit more exotic like goji berries or gooseberries.
With at least 95% of their caloric intake coming from plants, people in the blue zones enjoy a variety of seasonal veggies.
The crème de la crème for longevity are leafy greens like spinach, kale, chard, beet and turnip greens, and collards. In fact, beet and turnip greens actually contain more health-promoting nutrients than the beets and turnips themselves! (PS, they’re great in smoothies.)
Low in calories but high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, leafy greens help keep weight down, stabilize blood sugar, lower blood pressure, and improve gut health. High consumption of greens is also associated with lower rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. (5)
Leafy greens contain high concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin which are protective against cataracts and macular degeneration. (6)
Enjoy 5 to 10 servings of dark leafy greens every day to optimize your health and promote longevity.
A common thread joining people across every one of the blue zones is an enjoyment of tea. Okinawans, for example, sip green tea all day, which has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and several cancers. (7)
Herbal teas promote strong health as well. The centenarians in Ikaria drink herbal brews of rosemary, wild sage, and dandelion–all of which have anti-inflammatory properties.
Tea is an excellent source of polyphenols — antioxidant compounds which also serve as prebiotics to feed our beneficial gut bacteria. And yes, strong gut health is essential to overall health, immunity, and longevity.
Women in Okinawa, Japan are the longest living in the world–90 years old, on average–and 60% of their diet consists of sweet potatoes. This is no coincidence.
Sweet potatoes are high in fiber and packed with essential vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, potassium, B vitamins, manganese, magnesium, and copper.
They get their orange color from beta carotene, an antioxidant, which has been shown to support a healthy immune system, improve cognitive function, slow the progression of atherosclerosis, and protect against DNA damage. (8)
Though often overlooked, water is an essential nutrient for health and longevity. And according to a study by the Center for Disease Control nearly half–43 percent–of Americans don’t drink enough. Yikes!
Comprising 45 to 75 percent of your body weight, water transports nutrients, regulates body temperature, lubricates joints, and supports cardiovascular function.
Essential to digestion and detox, it may also help you maintain a healthy weight and optimal physical and mental performance. (9)
The Seventh Day Adventists in the Loma Linda blue zone recommend a daily water intake of 7 glasses.
Oats have long been championed by the American Heart Association for their heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering properties. Other whole grains, it turns out, are pretty great too–for heart health and more.
Whole grains–like farro, quinoa, brown rice, oats, barley, and bulgur–are shown to reduce the risk for several major chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer. (10)
There is also evidence that whole grains improve gut health and lower systemic inflammation by increasing microbial diversity (11). In other words, they feed the good bacteria in our guts which improves digestion and lowers the inflammation that causes everything from achy joints to autoimmune disease.
Please note, you’ll want to make sure you’re only using whole, unprocessed versions of these grains. For example, choose whole or rolled oats – not minute oats.
Noted for powerful anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties, mushrooms have been used medicinally for thousands of years to combat everything from the common cold to cancer.
They contain a unique compound called beta-glucan which stimulates and strengthens the immune system (12). Shiitake mushrooms, the key ingredient Okinawa’s miso soup, contain more than 100 different compounds with immune-protecting properties.
High in protein, B-vitamins, and fiber, mushrooms also contain four key longevity-promoting micronutrients: selenium, vitamin D, glutathione and ergothioneine. These function as powerful antioxidants that help protect our DNA from oxidative stress, and tend to decline with aging.
Some mushrooms, like chaga and reishi, are adaptogens, meaning the body can “adapt” them to whatever use it needs. These remarkable superfoods support adrenal function and help the body combat vitality-depleting stress–both physical and psychological.
Enjoy cooked mushrooms in stir-fries and soups, but avoid raw mushrooms which contain a potentially carcinogenic substance called agaritine.
With the exception of Loma Linda, the blue zones do consume meat and fish, though less than you might think. They tend to enjoy meat as a sparing, celebratory food. Small servings of fish–mostly small, fatty fish like anchovies and sardines–are consumed up to 3 times per week.
It probably goes without saying that the blue zones avoid refined carbs and sugar, as well as processed/packaged foods. They also limit dairy, eggs and saturated fat.
Also worth noting, blue zoners don’t overeat. They abide by the “80 percent rule,” ceasing to eat once they are 80 percent full. And dinner is usually the smallest meal of the day.
Of course, there is more to longevity than following a whole-foods based healthy diet. The lifestyles of people in the blue zones are grounded in community, purpose, and natural physical activity.