What to Eat—and What to Avoid—to Live Longer

What to Eat—and What to Avoid—to Live Longer
Research shows eating the right foods can add years to your life.

You’ve probably heard that “eating right” can go a long way toward keeping you healthy, while it stands to reason that if you don’t, just the opposite will happen — at least sooner than it might have otherwise.

It turns out this is more than just conjecture, since a new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), reports that if you eat the right foods in the right amounts, your risk of dying from heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes — among the most common killers in the U.S. — could be cut nearly in half.

That’s pretty impressive, but what does “eat the right foods” even mean? It turns out there’s a “substantial body of evidence” showing that “suboptimal” diets are undeniably culpable in causing the development of these illnesses, collectively known as cardiometabolic diseases (CMD), for several reasons. Specifically:

“Dietary factors studied have included individual nutrients (macronutrients, micronutrients, minerals, vitamins, electrolytes, and phytochemicals), foods, and overall dietary patterns.”1

Lead study author Renata Micha, from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, said the scientists’ most important finding of the review was that scientists now understand more about which foods would help keep people in the U.S. from dying prematurely from these diseases.

The challenge, however, is getting people to sit up and take notice. But instead of focusing on foods that are bad for you, Micha asserts that a more compelling approach might be to emphasize the merits of eating beneficial foods and the nutritional aspects they offer.2

Good Foods, Bad Foods and How They Affect Your Health

If you’re at a loss regarding what’s really good for you and what’s really not, the study examined several types of foods to clarify their good and bad aspects.

Researchers combed through numerous studies, including National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys between 1999 to 2002, and 2009 to 2012, for evidence regarding what foods and/or dietary components affect your health most. Those included:

VegetablesFruitsProcessed and unprocessed meatsSoybean and corn oils
Omega-3 fatsSugary drinksSeafoodGrains, nuts and seeds

 

Of the 702,308 deaths from the top three diseases, 318,656 were determined to be a result of dietary factors from eating too much — or not enough — of these foods or dietary components.

Not surprisingly, information from this study echoed what scientists had already concluded regarding how the right foods can help, such as heart health.3

Not eating enough nuts and seeds was tied to 59,374 deaths; too much processed meat like bacon was tied to 57,766 deaths; too little fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, were implicated in 54,626 deaths, and not enough vegetables to 53,410 deaths.

Additionally, 51,695 deaths were tied to too many sugar-sweetened beverages. Interestingly, the study showed that more women than men die of cardiometabolic diseases due to unhealthy diets.

Additionally, younger and less educated people, blacks and Hispanics are at greater risk than older, more educated and white people.4

Eat More of These Foods for Optimal Health

In the U.S., most people follow family tradition for meals so that generally, they’ll consist of protein (meat), vegetables such as potatoes or corn, grains including bread, rice or pasta, a salad and, often, dessert.

That’s not all bad, but there are factors to consider. One is portion size, and the unfortunate trend nowadays is that too many people get too much of a good thing. Optimal amounts of good foods for a healthy diet, the study showed,5 will include:

  • 3 pieces of fruit a day
  • 2 cups of cooked or 4 cups of raw veggies per day
  • 5 1-ounce servings of nuts or seeds per week (about 20 nuts per serving)
  • 8 ounces of seafood weekly
  • 1 5- to 8-ounce serving of red meat per week

Meat and Seafood: Eating to Optimize Your Health

Protein is necessary for good health, but serving sizes are critical because your body can only use so much.

Excess protein requires your body to rid itself of excess nitrogen waste from your blood, stressing your kidneys, and may lead to dehydration. It can trigger the pathways rapamycin (mTOR) and GCN2, involved in cancer and aging.

Most people eat twice as much meat as they need, but how it’s cooked is another factor to consider. Grilled meat, for instance, undergoes a chemical reaction that may produce heterocyclic amines (HCAs), advanced glycation end products (AGEs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), each linked to deadly diseases.

As for chemically “enhanced” and processed meats, including bacon, salami, pepperoni, ham, pastrami, hot dogs, some sausages and hamburgers, you may be interested to know they’re now classified as carcinogenic (along with tobacco and asbestos), as studies show they can cause cancer in humans.

Further, they may cause male infertility. Most meat sold in the U.S. comes from animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), associated with antibiotic-resistant disease. Organic pastured meats have a better nutritional profile overall with far lower risk of pesticide contamination.

There’s also a reduced risk of contamination with drug-resistant microorganisms that can cause illness.

Regarding seafood, there are factors that have changed the dynamics over past decades. Some of what was once considered good for you is now potentially toxic, including shrimp and tuna, two of the most popular.

Fish from all over the world are now largely compromised due to toxic waste, fish farming operations and mercury contamination, which become cumulative as large fish consume smaller ones — all factors to consider when choosing seafood.

Salmon, an excellent source of omega-3 fats, must be wild-caught Alaskan salmon, not farmed.

Why You Need Omega-3 Fats, Nuts and Seeds

To improve your health and advance your life, add optimal amounts of omega-3 fats, as well as nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables to your diet (if you haven’t already). At the same time, eliminate sodas, as well as processed meats and meats from CAFOs.

Omega-3 comes from both animal and plant sources. The primary animal sources are krill oil and fish oil, which provide eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are heart protective, and in fact markedly reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and premature death.6

What sets krill oil apart from fish oil is that its omega-3 fats are in a much more absorbable form that’s ready to be used by your body. The primary plant sources of omega-3s are flaxseed, chia and hemp.

That introduces the topic of healthy nuts and seeds, specifically tree nuts (peanuts have the name, but are actually legumes, and not one I recommend) and seeds.

A handful of raw nuts is a great snack and contains healthy fats, fiber, protein, antioxidants and minerals and, as such, is great for your heart and may even help control your weight.

Eating raw seeds, such as pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, with their high level of good fats and oils, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, helps boost your immune system, fights free radicals and may help improve insulin levels, as well as benefit your heart and immune system.

The Facts About Soda and ‘Not Enough Fruits’

One of the dietary components identified by the study involved fruit, with an admonition that people don’t eat enough, which they attributed to 52,547 deaths. Closely connected is the fact that in the study, soda was a definite no-no, and there are exacerbating circumstances for both.

Regarding fruits, they offer many vitamins, enzymes and minerals, but should be eaten in moderation due to fructose content. Drinking fruit juices with added sugars does not provide the same benefit as consuming whole fruits.

Another important point is to eliminate high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. In a laboratory, HFCS is considered similar to table sugar, but contains higher levels of fructose. Some manufacturers say it contains no more than 55 percent fructose (with 45 percent glucose), which is comparable to white sugar.

But tests show the fructose in HFCS can reach as high as 65 percent, which explains why HFCS is so much worse for you than refined sugar. Soda consumption, even sugar-free soda, packs on pounds rather than helping you lose. Artificial sweeteners in diet sodas are not a suitable replacement for HFCS, as they’re linked not only to weight gain, but to diabetes, insulin resistance and leptin resistance.

It’s worth noting that soda and fruit juice have something in common: Both can cause gout. Plus, one study showed that women who had a single soda or a 6-ounce glass of fruit juice had a 74 percent and 41 percent higher risk, respectively, of this debilitatingly painful foot problem.7

Something else you should know is that virtually all processed foods contain HFCS, and much of it is hidden. My best recommendation for fructose is to limit it to 25 grams per day, from all sources, and as little as 15 grams a day if you’re diabetic or have chronic health issues (including the fructose from whole fruits).

Another thing to note is that pesticides render some of the most delicious and nutritious fruits and vegetables rather contaminated. The “Dirty Dozen” list8 for 2016 reports the most pesticide-sprayed fruits and vegetables. Peeling them can greatly diminish the hazards contained in these fruits, but then you’re also losing some of the most valuable nutrition. There’s also the “Clean 15” list of the least contaminated.

Excess Salt Isn’t the Problem — Not Enough Potassium Is

The featured study also noted that ingesting too much salt was tied to 66,508 deaths. However, it’s an unbalanced sodium-potassium ratio that leads to hypertension. Studies show that 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure.9 To say that maintaining balanced levels is crucial for health is not an understatement.

Potassium may be one of the least understood minerals. Suffice it to say that it’s crucial not just for optimal health, but for life. Unfortunately, however, only about 2 percent of the U.S. adult population gets the recommended daily index (RDI) of 4,700 milligrams (mg) per day; the other 98 percent get far less than that.10

Potassium needs to be kept in proper balance with sodium in your blood; if you consume too much sodium, which is common if you eat a lot of processed foods, you’ll have an increased need for potassium. With enough potassium in your diet, your hypertension and stroke risks diminish.Also, when you eat the right vegetables, so too does your risk of developing heart disease.

Potassium is an electrolyte and as such, helps conduct electrical charges in your body, along with calcium, magnesium, calcium and chloride. It’s important to help maintain a balance between the chemical and electrical processes in your body.

What Makes Potassium so Important

Potassium is considered a “major” mineral because it helps your muscles contract, regulates your body fluids, balances low blood sugar, transmits nerve impulses and lowers blood pressure. Leafy greens are one of the best potassium sources.

While getting the right amount can decrease your risk of stroke and heart disease, not getting enough can cause your blood sugar to plunge and kick in symptoms such as weakness, trembling, sweating and confusion. Further, low levels can contribute to the development of kidney stones and high blood pressure.

One of the amazing things about including potassium-rich foods, such as beet greens, avocados, bananas, wild-caught salmon, raw organic, grass-fed yogurt and black beans, in your diet is how quickly your body responds by lowering your risk of such problems, including that of heart disease. Also, organic is always best.

How to Change Your Eating Habits Without Becoming Overwhelmed

While there’s no “silver bullet” in regard to foods that will eliminate your risk of developing these or any other disease, the study’s senior author, also dean of the Friedman School at Tufts University, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, believes the way the food system is set up needs to change.

Mozaffarian’s advice for people who feel overwhelmed by the prospect of changing their eating habits is to choose one area to improve and nail it down before moving on to another.

An example, you might start your quest for better health by eliminating HFCS or soda, which undoubtedly would bring about a huge health improvement. With each upgrade, your risk factors for these and many other diseases will begin to diminish, and you’ll even feel better. To quote Micha, “Eating healthy is key, and if we remember that simple fact, most of us can have healthier and better lives.”11

This article originally appeared on Mercola.com.