What foods to eat (and avoid) for a long life
Advice from a nutrition expert on diet and lifestyle habits that can help prevent chronic disease.
Whether “Blue Zone” recipes or a ketogenic diet, a broad array of trends portrays certain foods as silver bullets to a healthy life. But what is the secret to longevity? Are the foods on our plates clues to avoiding chronic disease?
Erin Murray, Ph.D., assistant professor of Nutrition at Metropolitan State University of Denver, recommends a diverse and colorful diet of nutrient-dense foods full of antioxidants and fiber that support a healthy immune system and help reduce inflammation.
“What we eat and our overall dietary patterns play a significant role in health and disease by either reducing or increasing the risk of developing chronic diseases independent of genetic predisposition,” Murray said.
Food as medicine — or not
Nutrition research is increasingly focused on our overall diet composition rather than on a particular food or nutrient to avoid or eat, Murray said.
“A balanced lifestyle that includes eating well, exercising regularly, not smoking and avoiding excessive alcohol intake could prevent 80% of heart attacks, 90% of Type 2 diabetes and 70% of colorectal cancer,” Murray said. “It can also help people avoid osteoporosis, constipation, digestive disorders, cataracts and aging-related memory loss or dementia.”
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Yet 80% of adults living in the U.S. consume low amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while intaking high amounts of refined grains and proteins. In fact, Murray added, national research shows that the diet quality of people living in the U.S. has decreased over the past 30 years.
“Consuming excessive amounts of foods high in added sugars and refined carbohydrates such as white flour, foods high in saturated fat and/or trans fat and frequent consumption of red and processed meats have a negative effect on our health,” Murray said.
She gave the following example of a typical American diet: a large, sweetened coffee drink with a pastry or bagel for breakfast followed by a hamburger, fries and soda for lunch and a large burrito with chips, queso and a margarita for dinner.
This eating pattern is exceedingly low in antioxidants, fiber and other bioactive compounds found in whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains and calcium-rich foods that promote health, Murray said, and can increase proinflammatory substances that promote disease.
On the longevity menu
Murray recommends a diet consisting of a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables and whole grains in their most unprocessed state to support our health. She says to incorporate subgroups of vegetables in many colors into our meals several times per week and to add fruits, especially whole fruits, as well as beans, peas, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Karli Hunton, a graduate student in Nutrition and Dietetics at MSU Denver, says she introduces these high-fiber foods as “gut buddies.” Fiber helps us feel full, keeps us regular, feeds our healthy gut bacteria and influences how other nutrients are digested and absorbed, Hunton explained.
“The microbiome is a hot topic across many health and scientific fields, and fiber is key to a healthy gut,” said Hunton, who volunteers with kids at an after-school program centered on nutrition. “For example, fiber can help slow the absorption of glucose, preventing our blood sugar from spiking.”
Why processed foods prevail
Our current food system favors the production of highly processed food products that are very palatable and affordable and contribute to obesity and poor health, Murray said, making it difficult for many people to make food choices that promote health and wellness.
Hunton added that we must examine eating behaviors in the context of food environments and social disparities to avoid getting a two-dimensional story of people’s food choices.
“What’s missing from that story is that those foods may be their only source of nutrients and energy and that those negative health outcomes are related to myriad other situational experiences,” Hunton said.
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Fortunately, programs that focus on bringing healthy foods to underserved populations are starting to receive more support and funding. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture invested $59.4 million in a pilot program that provides food prescriptions and personalized meals with the goal to reduce diet-related diseases.
“By incorporating more of the recommended foods combined with much less of the foods we eat in excess,” Murray said, “we can reduce inflammation and the cellular processes that promote chronic diseases.”