If you had a chance to interview the longest living people on the planet, would you ask, "What do you eat every day?" Yep, we all know that food plays a pivotal role in healthy aging.
Considering you probably won't have the chance to do a worldwide survey of centenarians, we tapped experts to find out which foods are most popular in places with the lengthiest lifespans.
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Spoiler alert: Most of the following fare is prevalent in Blue Zones and the Mediterranean, both are regions that are known for their longevity-supporting diets.
1. Beans, Pulses and Legumes
Where they're most popular: Blue Zones
Why it's good for longevity: "One of the key elements of the Blue Zones diet and the Mediterranean diet is a plant-based approach, aka, eating less animal protein," says registered dietitian Amanda Holtzer, RD.
And that's where beans and legumes come in. They offer an amazing amount of plant-based protein wrapped up in a vitamin- and mineral-rich package.
"And when combined with rice [which they often are], beans become a complete protein with all essential amino acids, but without the saturated fat content of meat products," says Michelle Jaelin, RD, a registered dietitian based in Ontario, Canada.
Beans and legumes are also loaded with fiber and serve up complex carbohydrates. This means "they digest quite slowly and provide the body with a steadier stream of glucose (i.e., energy) over time," Holtzer says. "This contributes to more stabilized blood sugar, which can lead to a decreased risk of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and weight gain," she adds.
What's more, fiber also supports healthy digestion and bowel regularity.
The best part: The variety of beans is vast (read: you might never get bored of them). Try black beans (popular in Nicoya, Costa Rica), lentils, chickpeas and white beans (most common in the Mediterranean) and soybeans (a staple in Okinawa, Japan).
2. Olive Oil
Where it's most popular: Mediterranean countries including Greece, Spain and Italy
Why it's good for longevity: Fundamental to the Mediterranean diet, olive oil offers an abundance of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. "Research shows that they can help reduce LDL cholesterol ('bad' cholesterol), and, in turn, lower your chances of cardiovascular disease," Holtzer says.
In fact, an April 2020 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology observed that people who included more than half a tablespoon of olive oil in their daily diets had an 18 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease.
"Olive oil is super high in polyphenols, a class of compounds found in plant foods that function as antioxidants, which fight against cell damage and inflammation in the body," Holtzer says.
Where they're most popular: Blue Zones
Why it's good for longevity: No wonder nuts promote longevity and are big in the Blue Zones: "They are excellent for heart health as they contain high amounts of unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which help to lower bad LDL cholesterol," Holtzer says.
Nutrient-dense nuts also supply fiber (which is essential for regulating cholesterol levels and stabilizing the blood sugar), and they're ample in anti-inflammatory antioxidants, Holtzer says.
While there's no shortage of nut options, there are a few standouts:
- Almonds (widely enjoyed in Ikaria, Greece and Sardinia, Italy): "Almonds are highest in vitamin E and riboflavin, both of which are essential for vision and skin health and cell function," Holtzer says. They're also rich in mighty minerals such as magnesium and manganese, Jaelin adds.
- Pistachios (a staple in Nicoya, Costa Rica): Pistachios provide a powerful dose of manganese, phosphorus and potassium, Jaelin says.
Where they're most popular: Sardinia, Italy, Greece and other Mediterranean countries
Why it's good for longevity: Tomatoes tout a high antioxidant content. "They are chock-full of an antioxidant called lycopene, a powerful nutrient that gives them their red color," Holtzer says. "Research shows that higher blood levels of lycopene are correlated with lower levels of LDL cholesterol and higher levels of HDL cholesterol, both of which contribute to improved heart health."
Studies have also shown a link between higher lycopene intake and cancer prevention, but more research is needed to confirm the association, Holtzer says.
Plus, tomatoes are full of both water and fiber, so they're excellent for hydration and digestion, respectively, Holtzer says.
To top it off, "tomatoes are also very high in vitamin C, making them an immune-boosting food," Holtzer says. One medium tomato contains about 20 percent of your daily value (DV) of vitamin C, per the USDA.
5. Okinawan Purple Sweet Potatoes
Where they're most popular: Okinawa, Japan
Why it's good for longevity: This vivid purple sweet potato is a powerhouse of nutrients. Anthocyanin pigments (responsible for the veggies' vibrant blue-purple hue) are powerful polyphenol antioxidants, which help bolster the immune system and reduce inflammation, Jaelin says.
And if that's not enough reason to eat these root vegetables, sweet potatoes are also a good source of gut-friendly fiber.
6. Leafy Greens
Where they're most popular: China
Why it's good for longevity: "It's no surprise that those who live the longest eat a lot of plants," Holtzer says. "But, specifically, they eat a lot of dark leafy greens," she adds.
Dark leafy greens provide a plethora of vital vitamins and minerals, including:
- Folate: Folate is a B vitamin that's essential to produce DNA and RNA and supports cell growth and function, Holtzer says. In other words, "it's extremely important during life stages of growth (think: pregnancy, infancy, childhood and adolescence)." Kale, in particular, has 20 percent of your DV of folate in 1 cup cooked.
- Vitamin K: Vitamin K is crucial for blood clotting and bone metabolism, Holtzer says. "And studies have shown that increased vitamin K consumption is correlated with higher bone mineral density and lower risk of osteoporosis," she says.
- Vitamin C: "We often give citrus fruits all the credit when it comes to vitamin C, but leafy greens pack a hefty amount of vitamin C," which is a powerful antioxidant, Holtzer says. Just 1 cup of cooked kale has 26 percent DV.
Where it's most popular: Loma Linda, California
Why it's good for longevity: If you want to live to be an octogenarian, opt for oats. Oatmeal, particularly oatmeal made with old-fashioned rolled oats, provides fiber, B vitamins and iron, making it a fantastic food for a healthy heart, gut and blood sugar levels, Jaelin says.
Indeed, an August 2012 study in the Nutrition Journal observed that eating high-fiber oatmeal decreased LDL cholesterol and waist circumference, and, consequently, reduced the major risk factors for heart disease in adults with a history of high cholesterol.
Similarly, a June 2016 meta-analysis of studies in Circulation shows that eating whole grains like oatmeal is associated with a lower chance of early death, especially from heart disease.
Where they're most popular: Blue Zones
Why it's good for longevity: "Fruits such as blueberries are a top choice for snacks, desserts and sweet treats among Blue Zone centenarians," Holtzer says. And these little blue bites serve up some sweet health benefits.
For starters, they're full of phytochemicals, including anthocyanins (the same potent pigment found in purple sweet potatoes).
"Research shows a link between a regular, moderate intake of blueberries and/or anthocyanins with a reduced risk of several diseases, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes," Holtzer says. "It's also linked with improved weight management and neuroprotection."
Also, blueberries contain "antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which exhibit beneficial effects on vascular and glucoregulatory processes [meaning, they help regulate blood sugar]," Holtzer says.
Not to mention, blueberries are brimming with vitamin K, which assists with blood clotting and bone health, as well as manganese, which is essential for bone health and reducing inflammation, she says.
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: “Olive Oil Consumption and Cardiovascular Risk in U.S. Adults”
- Nutrition Journal: “Randomized controlled trial of oatmeal consumption versus noodle consumption on blood lipids of urban Chinese adults with hypercholesterolemia”
- Circulation: “Whole Grain Intake and Mortality From All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies”