While there are many factors—like environment, family history, and age—that can affect how long you live, there’s no shortage of research to back up the very strong connection between diet and longevity.
“Fruits and vegetables contain compounds that reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, some cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and obesity, which is one of the reasons health experts are constantly trying to encourage people to eat more of them,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, author of Eating in Color.
But fruits and veggies aren’t the only foods you should be nourishing your body with to play your best defense against diseases. Here is a laundry list of the most nutritious foods to add to your diet to improve your longevity and protect your health.
Beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, and chickpeas are excellent sources of fiber and plant-based protein to stabilize blood sugar and keep cravings at bay. They also help nourish a healthy microbiome.
While eggs have high cholesterol content, research shows that it doesn’t affect your overall blood cholesterol the same way that saturated fats do. In fact, one meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, found that individuals with a high egg intake (about seven a week), had a 12 percent reduced risk of stroke compared to those who had a low egg intake (less than two a week).
Leafy green vegetables, like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard, are chock-full of folate, which is vital for cell growth and red blood cell formation. They also back carotenes (pigments that act as antioxidants) that help maintain healthy vision, bones, teeth, and skin.
“Folate from natural food sources helps protect brain function as we age,” Dixon says. On the other hand, “carotenes bring a boost of antioxidants, which protect against DNA decay or the breakdown of cells,” she adds. “This damage can accumulate over time, contributing to cancer and heart disease.”
Just be sure to stick with whole foods to get your fill of folate, instead of supplements. Taking folic acid supplements can increase your risk of certain cancers, notably colon cancer, Dixon says.
Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and radishes, support the body’s natural detoxification processes. “We have ‘detox’ enzymes, or chemical systems, within our cells (particularly in the liver), and the activity of these enzymes is bolstered by the presence of specific substances found only in cruciferous vegetables,” Dixon says.
Cruciferous veggies are especially beneficial for women, as they help to keep estrogen levels healthy and thwart off hormone-related cancers such as breast, ovarian, endometrial (uterine). Dixon suggests sneaking in at least five servings of cruciferous veggies into your meals each week.
Extra-virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) has been a culinary staple for more reasons than it’s plain delicious. It’s proven to help reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and improve insulin sensitivity, Dixon says.
“Extra virgin olive oil has an excellent record of research demonstrating benefits to the cardiovascular system, which is particularly important to note these days, given the fact that heart disease is the number one killer in the U.S.,” says Dixon.
Make a homemade salad dressing with EVOO, drizzle some over veggies before roasting them to get them nice and crisp, and sub it in for butter in recipes to reduce saturated fat.
Make fatty fish, such as wild salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines, a part of your weekly diet. “Hundreds of studies support the use of small fatty fish for brain health, as they contain omega-3 fatty acids and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which feeds the brain and prevents loss of memory and depression,” says Susan Schenck, LAc, MOTM, author of The Live Food Factor.
Okinawans are known for living long, healthy lives and have one of the largest populations of centenarians (people who live to 100) in the world. One secret to their longevity? Sweet potatoes, which are loaded with vitamin A, potassium, and fiber.