Can you eat your way to a longer life? It’s a question people often pose to experts like Laura L. Carstensen, PhD, a professor of psychology and the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in Stanford, California — and more and more research suggests the answer may be yes.
According to a chapter in Nutrition, Food, and Diet in Aging and Longevity, published in October 2021, studies have found that diets such as the Mediterranean diet, the Okinawa diet, the Nordic diet, and vegetarian diets promote longevity. It’s likely that these diets help protect your cells against aging thanks to the omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and other substances they contain.
But what does science say about the connection?
Can Your Diet Ward Off Age-Related Diseases?
Researchers have found that eating — or not eating — certain types of foods can affect your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes that can, in turn, affect how long you are likely to live. While no single food is going to guarantee you’ll live to see 100, research has found that certain eating patterns contribute to a long life span by lowering the risk for chronic diseases associated with aging.
For example, you could lower your risk of heart attack by following a diet like the Mediterranean diet or the Nordic diet, according to a study published in BMC Medicine in June 2018. The Mediterranean diet may reduce your risk of breast cancer, according to a study published in Nutrients in March 2018. Eating mostly plants and whole foods may lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, according to a review published in Nutrients in September 2020. And whole grains may lower the risk of pancreatic cancer, according to research published in the Journal of Nutrition in March 2021.
Dr. Carstensen is a fan of the Mediterranean diet, an eating plan that mimics the dietary habits of the long-lived residents of the Mediterranean region, with a focus on whole, plant-based foods, healthy fats, nuts and legumes, and lean protein. “I love salads and fish, so it’s easy for me, and there’s good reason to think it’s good for you,” she notes. Research backs her up: The Mediterranean diet was linked with longevity in a large review published in Nutrients in June 2021.
Specific components of the Mediterranean diet may impact certain health conditions. For example, eating more plant protein (and less animal protein, especially processed red meat) may reduce your risk of death from cardiovascular conditions, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine. Research published in the journal Gout in June 2020 suggested that the Mediterranean diet could benefit the gut microbiome, making you less frail as you age and improving your cognitive function. And plant-based foods slow the onset of diabetes and heart disease, according to research published in Antioxidants in March 2021.
Could Limiting Your Calories Lengthen Your Life?
Research shows that obesity shortens your life span. According to research published in Obesity Reviews in April 2020, obesity shortens the life spans of women by 7.1 years and men by 5.8 years after age 40. And obesity was linked with a number of chronic conditions, including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer, in a study published May 2021 in Aging Research Reviews.
On the other hand, preliminary research in animals has shown that restricting calories — a practice that can aid weight loss — can slow aging. “In animal intake, when calorie intake is substantially reduced in studies, the animals not only live longer, they appear to be healthier,” Carstensen says. “That means there’s something about what we’re eating or not eating that is influencing our health. That’s the most compelling evidence that diet matters.”
Research published in Molecular Cell Biology in September 2021 supports Carstensen’s opinion, calling dietary restriction with adequate nutrition “the gold standard” for promoting a long, healthy life.
One popular eating approach that may naturally reduce your calorie intake? Intermittent fasting, or time-restricted eating. Intermittent fasting involves alternating times when you eat with times when you don’t, usually on a daily or weekly basis. While significantly more research is needed, more studies have focused on this practice in recent years. For example, research published in Nature Aging in January 2021 found that intermittent fasting may improve longevity and health span by promoting healthy cell aging and reducing risk factors for some diseases.
Carstensen practices time-restricted eating herself — she has nothing but black coffee in the morning, and limits the time she eats to an 8- to 12-hour window daily.
While more research is needed, the links between what you eat and how long you live are intriguing. The Mediterranean diet, the blue zones diet, or the Nordic diet, all of which emphasize whole, plant-based foods, could put you on a path to a longer life.
A final word of caution: Always keep in mind that under-eating isn’t a healthy option for people, with some serious health risks involved. According to research published in the Annual Review of Nutrition In September 2020, caloric restriction could lead to nutritional deficiencies and could harm muscle and bone tissues (especially in elderly people who don’t have obesity). Talk to a registered dietitian-nutritionist; he or she can help you make sure you’re working toward your health goals while meeting your nutritional needs.
Carstensen on Her Diet for Healthy Aging
Here’s what Carstensen said about how her work on longevity has influenced the way she eats. Her responses have been edited for determination and clarity.
Everyday Health: What does a typical day of eating look like for you?
Laura Carstensen: In the morning, I just have black coffee. I don’t like to eat breakfast, and that helps me restrict my eating to an 8- to 12-hour window. I’ll usually have a salad for lunch, and then dinner might be pasta pomodoro, a really good spinach broccoli soup, a red lentil soup I make, grilled salmon or chicken, or a quesadilla. I eat vegetarian a couple of times a week.
That said, I love food, and there isn’t a food group that I don’t eat. I enjoy just about any kind of food. I have probably tried every recommended diet and exercise routine and failed at most of them. In the last 5 to 10 years, I started leaning toward things that I really enjoy and not buying things that I enjoy that are not good for you. For me, it’s not a good idea to ever buy potato chips and put them in my cupboard. If they’re not there, it doesn’t matter, but if they’re there, I’ll eat too many of them.
EH: Why is this the diet you follow?
LC: Time-restricted eating is something that I think is really interesting. A lot of the biologists I know who are studying longevity are on time-restricted diets of one kind or another. I think it makes sense that if you eat in fewer hours, you eat less, and you give your body a rest from having to process what you’re ingesting. I think there’s enough evidence on time-restricted eating for people to consider it.
And the Mediterranean diet looks like it has the most evidence for being healthful. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains seem to be really good for people. If you look at regions of the world where people are very long lived, most of them are eating something like a Mediterranean diet, so there’s good reason to think that’s a good approach.
EH: What’s your favorite healthy snack?
LC: I don’t really snack at all during the day. I’ll have a glass of wine and nuts or [whole-grain] crackers when I get home from work. I used to eat cheese and crackers, but it was way too much cheese, so I switched to plain crackers or nuts.
EH: When you’re feeling run-down, which foods or drinks do you rely on to boost your energy?
LC: I’m really bad at thinking about food as fuel. I drink coffee in the morning. In the afternoon, if I was winding down and tired, I’d probably have green tea. It’s just enough of a stimulant to make me feel awake but not agitated.
EH: Is there a cooking method or technique that you gravitate toward? Or one you avoid?
LC: I love to cook. We have very little processed food in the house, so from salad dressings to soups, I make those things. I cook with olive oil — that’s my default. I make a lot of vegetarian pie dishes. And I think grilling is a healthy way to eat, indoors or out.
EH: How do you treat yourself?
LC: If I wanted to treat myself, I would go to a really good restaurant and eat everything that I wanted. There’s something great about going to a good French or Italian restaurant where people really know how to cook. It’s a treat to be able to save it, and I would eat anything I wanted at a time like that. I am not big on deprivation at all.
EH: What’s one healthy food you wish you ate more of?
LC: I wish I liked smoothies with kale and carrots and that kind of stuff. I just don’t. It’s too much liquid for me.
EH: Are there any foods you would never eat?
LC: I don’t eat organs like brain, kidney, or liver. They are not appealing.
EH: What’s your strategy when eating out?
LC: I don’t eat out very often, so I treat myself to whatever I want. But if I ate out every night, I wouldn’t be able to do that!
EH: Wine with dinner: Yes or no?
LC: Absolutely. Wine before dinner and then with dinner, so two glasses. I believe the research [and the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans] when they say women should have only one glass of wine; but I have two glasses [when I choose to drink wine]and I think I’m okay.
EH: What’s one small change you’ve made — dietary or otherwise — to help promote longevity?
LC: Probably time-restricted eating. It’s something I learned from my geroscience colleagues, and I tried it, and I felt better. I used to put half-and-half in my coffee and eat five almonds in the morning, since a trainer had told me years ago that you needed to eat first thing in the morning to activate your digestive system. I gave that up, and it was easy for me.
EH: What’s one small change anyone can make to help them to live a longer, healthier life?
LC: Get some kind of exercise. It doesn’t have to be jogging or running. It can be walking. And it doesn’t have to be 10,000 steps. You get the biggest bang for your buck in the first mile, and the evidence suggests you’re not getting much more of a health benefit after 7,500 steps, though if you want to do more than that, it’s fine.
EH: Any final thoughts on the link between eating choices and longevity?
LC: I think the key is finding things you like so you don’t feel deprived, and making them easily available in your world. Try to stay away from things you know you’re susceptible to eating that aren’t good for you — try not to have them in your sight or in your cupboard. And then enjoy life — one of the things that’s a really good predictor of longevity is happiness.