As researchers learn more every year about the types of habits that age us, findings continue to show a strong link between eating an unprocessed, nutrient-dense diet and being better protected against age-related diseases. For example, it’s recently been found that having short telomeres, the parts of DNA at the end of chromosomes that control aging, is a risk factor for shortened life expectancy. And while there’s still a lot more to uncover about exactly how telomeres work, studies have found that adults who consume more vitamins and minerals throughout their lives (such as from plant foods high in vitamins C and E) tend to have longer telomeres on average—and, therefore, a potentially lowered risk for early death.
After decades of studying populations around the world, it’s been found that a variety of whole foods-based diets (not simply one “ideal” human diet) can help prevent health problems that tend to occur in older age, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and dementia.
So while it’s always important to eat a diet that’s as clean and healthy as possible, if you’re in your 40s, now is definitely the time to make changes that will help you reach your 80s and beyond. Breaking old habits might seem tough at first, but you can find comfort in knowing that certain dietary adjustments can have a huge impact on your quality of life in the years to come.
Below are my top five dietary tips to put you on the path toward longevity:
“Eat The Rainbow” To Increase Your Antioxidant Intake
Experts believe that highly antioxidant foods—usually the types that are deeply colored like carrots, kale, or blueberries—can protect cells and their telomeres from oxidative stress (free radical damage). Oxidative damage is one of the primary causes of symptoms associated with aging, including joint pain, memory loss, vision problems and heart disease.
To help keep inflammation levels and free radical damage under control, add a variety of antioxidant-rich foods to your meals and snacks whenever possible. Try reaching for real dark cocoa; raspberries, acai, goji and other berries; leafy greens; winter squash; artichokes; fresh herbs and spices; red wine (in moderation); and powdered chlorophyll.
Don’t Skimp on Omega-3 Foods & Other Healthy Fats
It might be tempting to lower your intake of fats in order to cut calories and prevent weight gain as you age, but this may actually backfire. Healthy dietary fats are essential for hormone production, proper nutrient absorption, controlling your appetite, and maintaining cognitive health. Aim to get about 20-30 (even up to 40) percent of your daily calories from healthy fats like real coconut or olive oil, moderate amounts of grass-fed pasture-raised meats, wild-caught fish, nuts and seeds, and avocados.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in walnuts and flax seeds, as well as wild-caught seafood including salmon and sardines, are especially beneficial for reducing inflammation and protecting mental health as you age.
Get Enough Fiber
After studying the habits of people living in the world’s Blue Zones (areas that have the highest rates of centenarians—those living to 100 years or more), researchers found that these populations all emphasize eating lots of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. In fact, most people who grew up in the Blue Zones reported eating between four to six servings of vegetables every single day (about two vegetables at each meal, ideally), along with several pieces of fresh fruit.
High fiber diets have been correlated with health benefits such as weight maintenance, better digestive health, cholesterol reduction, protection against blood-clots and heart disease, and improved gut health. In addition to eating lots of produce in the Blue Zones, individuals typically obtain additional fiber from plant foods like beans, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Include Probiotic Foods
Probiotic foods are those that are fermented and thus provide gut-friendly “good bacteria” that help increase immunity. By positively affecting your microbiome, probiotic foods such as yogurt, kefir, and cultured veggies can offer protection against inflammatory diseases that are tied to factors like poor gut health, low nutrient absorption, and hormonal imbalances. For the most protective effects, also aim to eat more prebiotic foods. Prebiotics are a type of non-digestible fiber that is found in foods like raw garlic and raw and cooked onions. They’re important to overall health because they serve as fuel for probiotics, helping those good bacteria to thrive and multiply in the gut.
Consume More Alkalizing Foods
Findings from certain studies suggest that consuming more alkalizing foods—like fresh vegetables, fruits, and unprocessed, plant-based protein sources—can help promote longevity by preventing plaque formation in blood vessels, reducing muscle wasting, improving a sluggish metabolism, maintaining strong bones, and balancing essential mineral levels.
An alkaline diet works by balancing the pH level of fluids in your body, as well as levels of key electrolytes. Today, much of the food supply contains significantly lower levels of minerals including potassium, magnesium, and chloride compared to diets of the past, while also containing more sodium. This double-edged sword puts a lot of stress on the kidneys and digestive organs and can cause problems with normal bone formation, cellular rejuvenation, and tissue repair.
Some of the best alkaline foods to incorporate into your diet include all types of veggies (especially those that are green), berries and other fruit, green juices, sea vegetables like algae, nuts and seeds like chia or almonds, most beans, and alkaline water.
Some Bonus Tips
It’s also important to note that while improving your diet can certainly go a long way in boosting your odds of living a longer life, your diet isn’t the only factor that matters. Other lifestyle variables also contribute to aging—including dealing with high levels of stress, getting too little physical activity, and not getting adequate sleep. So in addition to eating more antioxidants, healthy fats, fiber, and probiotics, you can protect both your physical and mental health by making enough time in your life to rest, relax, move, socialize and have fun.
Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist and author with a passion to help people get well using food as medicine. He recently authored ‘Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and Five Surprising Steps to Cure It’ and he operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites at http://www.DrAxe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DRJoshAxe.