Genetics, environment, lifestyle: There are a number of factors that contribute to longevity. As healthy hotspots like the Blue Zones have shown, all of these things, as well as what we eat, can significantly influence how we age.
Research repeatedly shows that a well-balanced, Mediterranean diet might just be the key to healthy aging. With its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, fish and healthy fats like olive oil, the eating style is automatically anti-inflammatory and longevity-friendly.
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On the flip side, some foods and drinks can compromise the aging process. After all, about one in every five deaths occur due to poor diet, according to a May 2019 study published in The Lancet. That's concerning, as many of the foods that contribute to diet-related chronic disease risk are staples of the standard American diet.
Below, aging experts highlight the five worst foods and beverages for longevity, plus what to eat instead.
Sad but true: Alcohol is a toxin and it doesn't do our healthspan any favors. Despite the purported benefits of booze (but the antioxidants in red wine!), experts agree that alcohol is far from healthy.
For one, alcohol increases the risk of cancer, the second leading cause of death in the United States, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And research shows that adult beverages heighten the risk of colorectal and breast cancers, even at low levels of intake, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).
Alcohol is also a known immunosuppressant, which is particularly problematic for older folks.
"The effectiveness of the immune system declines with age, a process called immunosenescence," says Katie Dodd, RD, a registered dietitian who specializes in the care of older adults and founded the practice The Geriatric Dietitian. "Chronic alcohol consumption combined with immunosenescence increases the risk of having a poor functioning immune system."
Stick to the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend a max of two drinks daily for men and one drink daily for women. Even better, cut that amount in half (or less). When it comes to booze and longevity, less is more. Cheers.
“Eating for longevity includes eating a healthy diet with fruits, vegetables and plenty of protein,” Dodd says. “Protein is so important for longevity because it protects muscle mass when done with resistance exercise. On the flip side, a diet low in protein can worsen age-related health outcomes. Losing muscle as we age increases our risk of falling, getting sick, going to the hospital or even being able to take care of ourselves.”
2. Processed Meats
Bacon lovers beware: Processed meats like sausages, hot dogs and corned beef are categorized by the World Health Organization as Group 1 carcinogens. Translation: There is sufficient evidence that chronic consumption of these foods increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
"The WHO's classification raised a lot of eyebrows," says Donald Hensrud, MD, an internist who specializes in preventive medicine at the Mayo Clinic. "But the organization reviewed hundreds of studies over a long period of time and made its decision based on the cumulative evidence."
You may be wondering, Is there an acceptable amount of processed meat I can enjoy? Currently, there are no specific guidelines from any public health or cancer organizations about the amount of salami that's considered safe. But even enjoying 50 grams of processed meat — the equivalent of one hot dog — daily is linked to a 16 percent increased risk of colon cancer, per the AICR.
"Most of the nutrition data is epidemiological in nature, which makes it difficult to prove causation," Dr. Hensrud notes. "However, the consistency of the data is pretty convincing overall."
In general, the less processed meat we eat, the better. Aim to limit red and processed meats and instead emphasize fresh, lean proteins like fish, poultry, eggs, beans, tofu and tempeh.
When it comes to eating for longevity, it all boils down to eating more unprocessed, natural foods and emphasizing plants.
3. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
We hate to break it to you, but sips like soda have no redeeming qualities when it comes to our health.
The leading contributors of added sugars in the American diet, sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are among the key culprits for rising rates of diet-related chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, as well as heart, kidney and liver diseases, per the CDC.
There's also evidence that excess sugar might mess with our minds. Chronically high blood glucose levels are associated with a significantly greater rate of cognitive decline, per a January 2018 longitudinal study published in Diabetologia. The researchers also reported that study participants with diabetes experienced greater declines in memory and executive function over the course of the eight-year study compared to those without diabetes.
But dietary interventions can help. Take the MIND diet, for example. It's essentially a cross between the Mediterranean Diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (or the DASH diet).
Sticking to the MIND Diet has been associated with substantial reductions in the rate of cognitive decline among older adults, according to June 2015 research in Alzheimer's & Dementia.
"The MIND Diet includes healthy foods like veggies, berries, olive oil, nuts, whole grains, fish, beans and poultry," Dodd says. "But it also has foods to avoid or limit, including sweets."
You don't have to cut carbs altogether to live longer. “We've flip-flopped over the years from high-carb, low-fat diets to now high-fat, low-carb diets like the keto diet,” Dr. Hensrud notes. But the best approach may simply be a happy medium. People who ate between 50 and 55 percent of their total calories from carbohydrates had the lowest mortality rates compared to people who ate a larger or smaller proportion of their total calories from carbs, per a September 2018 analysis in The Lancet Public Health.
4. Ultra-Processed Foods
On average, Americans consume nearly 50 percent more than the recommended amount of sodium every day, per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). One of the top sources of excess salt in the standard American diet? Ultra-processed foods (UPFs), including items like packaged snacks.
No, eating Doritos won't end your life. But emerging research suggests that heavy, chronic consumption of UPFs could potentially speed up aging. To understand the connection, it's important to first have a working definition of telomeres.
Plain and simple: "Telomeres are associated with aging," Dr. Hensrud says. "Longer telomeres are associated with longer longevity."
Telomeres sit at the end of chromosomes, which are essentially packages of DNA in cells. They serve to protect DNA from damage and every time a cell divides, telomeres become shorter, per the National Human Genome Research Institute. As telomeres shorten, the cell's DNA is more prone to damage. As a result, the cell's functionality (and, by extension, lifespan) declines.
OK, but where do the Doritos come in? Regularly eating UPFs is associated with greater odds of having short telomeres among older adults, according to a June 2020 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Because this was a cross-sectional study, we can't conclude that eating more packaged snacks causes cells to age quicker. Plus, other lifestyle habits among high-UPF consumers may be to blame for the reduction in telomere length.
But while studies on the link between diet and telomeres have produced conflicting findings, some of the existing literature does support the idea that telomeres might shorten in response to oxidative stress, insulin resistance and inflammation in the body, all of which can be exacerbated by dietary choices, per an August 2016 review in Nature.
The bottom line? Reduce your intake of UPFs for a better chance at healthy aging. When snacking, choose whole, unprocessed foods with minimal ingredients, like an apple with natural peanut butter, carrots dipped in guacamole or plain Greek yogurt that's naturally sweetened with fresh fruit and cinnamon.
5. Fried and Charred Meats
By now, we know that processed meats pose problems for our health. But so do fresh animal proteins that are prepared using certain cooking methods. Among the worst offenders are frying and high-heat grilling.
Both preparations can produce harmful compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrogens (PAHs), per the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Each form from the unique interaction between the high heat (think: 300 degrees Fahrenheit or higher), protein components, such as amino acids, fats and creatinine.
The problem with PAHs and HCAs is that they are mutagenic, aka they have the power to cause cell mutations that may heighten cancer risk. So far, the majority of the research in this area has been conducted in animals. But epidemiological studies in humans suggest a possible connection between HCAs and certain cancers, according to July 2016 research in the journal Genes and Environment.
FYI: How many PAHs and HCAs are formed depends on the type of protein being cooked, the preparation method used and how long the food is cooked, per the NCI. Avoid grilling or barbecuing meats for long periods of time over direct heat. The char on well-done chicken, for example, can be high in the harmful compounds.
To reduce your exposure to PAHs and HCAs, limit fried meat products, cut away charred bits, avoid using gravies made from drippings and flip your proteins often if cooking meat, poultry or fish over direct, high heat.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to eating for longevity, "it all boils down to eating more unprocessed, natural foods and emphasizing plants," Dr. Hensrud explains.
Following a balanced, whole-food diet doesn't just improve mortality outcomes, it also leaves us feeling more energetic and nourished. That's key. "It's important to think about quality of life, not just preventing disease long-term," Dr. Hensrud says.
- National Cancer Institute: “Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk”
- The Lancet: “Health Effects of Dietary Risks in 195 Countries, 1990–2017: A Systematic Analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017”
- American Institute for Cancer Research: “Alcohol and Cancer Risk: The Latest Research”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Leading Causes of Death”
- World Health Organization: “Cancer: Carcinogenicity of the Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Get the Facts: Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Consumption”
- Diabetologia: “HbA1c, Diabetes, and Cognitive Decline: The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing”
- United States Department of Agriculture: “2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans”
- Food and Drug Administration: “Sodium in Your Diet”
- American Institute for Cancer Research: “Processed Meats Increase Colorectal Cancer Risk, New Report”
- National Human Genome Research Institute: “Telomere”
- Nature: “Dietary Patterns, Food Groups and Telomere Length: A Systematic Review of Current Studies”
- Genes and Environment: “Cancer in Japan: Prevalence, Prevention and the Role of Heterocyclic Amines in Human Carcinogenesis”
- Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome: “Associations Between Metabolic Syndrome and Type of Dementia: Analysis Based on the National Health Insurance Service Database of Gangwon Province in South Korea”
- The Lancet Public Health: “Dietary Carbohydrate Intake and Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study and Meta-Analysis”