You’ve heard the old saying, “You are what you eat.” This is especially true when it comes to enhancing your longevity and healthspan.
“Nutrition is your fuel. You have to give your system the tools to perform at the highest caliber,” says Lifeforce Physician Dr. Leah Johansen, MD, ABFM, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner. “Do you want to use high-grade octane sources or settle for less and compromise your performance?”
The answer seems like a no-brainer, but what are those “high-grade” food sources? That’s where things get a little tricker. There is no “magic food” or cure-all that will guarantee you live longer and stronger. Every body is different, and nutrition needs to be part of a holistic health picture that includes other essential factors such as sleep, hydration, movement, and metabolic health, notes Dr. Ryan Greene, DO, MS, Lifeforce Clinical Advisor and Co-Founder and Medical Director at Monarch Athletic Club.
Still, our experts agree that there are important nutrients and food groups that support longevity. Some of the keys can be found in Blue Zones, populations of global society where people live regularly to 100 years old with little incidence of disease, explains Dr. Greene. Diets in Blue Zones consist of lots of in-season produce, whole grains, plant-based oils, nuts, and very little processed food.
What does that mean for your grocery list? Our experts break down what you should be prioritizing.
Why They’re Essential:
Fats sometimes get a bad rap, but “healthy fats are incredibly important for heart health,” says Dr. Johansen. “Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the main nutrients to help protect against cardiovascular disease because they help reduce inflammation.” Here’s why this is key: Inflammation causes damage to arterial walls, explains Dr. Johansen. Cholesterol’s job is to patch damaged walls like glue. Our bodies get a signal to produce more cholesterol when inflammation is high. This leads to plaque buildup, which contributes to heart disease. If we reduce inflammation with omega-3s, “we take away the trigger of the arterial damage, so you’re not going to have a need to form plaque,” Dr. Johansen says.
Seafood is one of the richest sources of omega-3s. Our experts recommend salmon, cod, and trout, in addition to sardines, mackerel, anchovies, and herring. “These are least likely to be contaminated with pollutants and toxins,” says Lifeforce Physician Dr. Douglas Lucas, DO. Dr. Johansen recommends limiting fish intake to two to three times per week and choosing high-quality seafood with low levels of mercury.
Avocados are packed with healthy fats. They contain ALA, the omega-3 fatty acid found in plants, which may decrease cardiovascular risk. Avocados are also rich in carotenoids, vitamin C, vitamin E, and phenolic compounds, which can help lower inflammation and reduce oxidative stress. Research also shows that avocados may help improve cognition.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil is the most common oil used in Blue Zones. In fact, on the Greek island of Ikaria, they found that for middle-aged people, about six tablespoons of olive oil daily cut the risk of early death in half. Olive is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, and research shows it enhances heart health. Dr. Johansen suggests drizzling olive oil on food after cooking instead of cooking with it because it degrades in high heat. For cooking, opt for avocado oil, coconut oil, or ghee.
“They are the highest source of omega-3s for vegans,” says Dr. Johansen. Research shows that nuts are heart healthy and that walnuts may help lower LDL cholesterol. Plus, they’re packed with antioxidants like vitamin E. She suggests a handful a day as a healthy snack.
In addition to its healthy fats, Brazil nuts deliver 900 percent of the daily value of selenium, which helps support a healthy thyroid, says Dr. Johansen. She recommends about six to seven Brazil nuts a day.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Why They’re Essential:
“The best way to facilitate healthy nutrient absorption and optimize your diet is to eat a wide assortment of fruits and vegetables. They have tons of nutrients that help lower inflammation,” says Dr. Greene. He also notes that produce is an excellent source of fiber. “It’s one of the most important components to preserve healthy gut bacteria and minimize blood sugar fluctuation.”
When it comes to your produce, all our experts encourage variety. “Make them as colorful as possible,” says Dr. Greene. The quality of your food is also key to getting the most valuable nutrients. “Choose locally grown, organic, and in-season produce whenever possible.”
Cruciferous Vegetables and Leafy Greens
The active ingredient in these veggies — think broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, and bok choy — is a phytochemical called indole-3 carbonyl. IC3 is “strongly related to reversing cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and certain cancers,” says Dr. Johansen. “This is really important for longevity.” Research shows that phytochemicals in cruciferous vegetables may trigger antioxidant and anti-inflammatory responses that help prevent disease.
Green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, and collard greens have also been shown to help slow cognitive decline. Dr. Johansen notes that these veggies may be tough on some people’s stomachs, so she suggests sprouted options. “They are very well tolerated, affordable, and great for you.”
Mushrooms have become increasingly trendy — and for good reason, says Dr. Johansen. Research shows that mushrooms help support a healthy immune system and may enhance heart health. According to Dr. Johansen, chaga mushrooms help protect cells from oxidative damage, lion’s mane supports cognitive health, and cordyceps stimulate the immune system. “When you see these fresh in the grocery store, take advantage and grab them. Supplementing with mushroom powders is great, but if you can eat them fresh, even better!” she says. “International markets generally have a wide selection.”
Dr. Lucas recommends blueberries and strawberries for their antioxidant power. They are rich in anthocyanins, ellagic acid, and resveratrol, which can help reduce inflammation, protect cells from oxidative damage, and lower LDL cholesterol levels. These antioxidants have also been linked to reducing cancer risk. Berries are also an excellent source of fiber and a great carbohydrate source, adds Dr. Lucas.
Why It’s Essential:
As we age, our bodies don’t absorb protein as efficiently — but this is when we need the macronutrient most. “The number one cause of death and loss of independence as we age is falls,” says Dr. Lucas. “A huge component of their impact is how much muscle you have to prevent your fall and slow down your landing. Another consideration is bone quality and quantity,” he says. Studies show that protein may help reverse age-related loss of muscle mass and support bone health. Aim for one gram per pound of your desired body weight, Dr. Lucas suggests.
“Choosing-high quality, well-sourced animal protein will yield the best nutrition and results,” says Dr. Lucas. All our experts recommend choosing grass-fed proteins with no antibiotics, sourced locally whenever possible.
Dr. Lucas also recommends eggs as a nutrient dense source of protein. The average egg contains six to eight grams of protein, and eggs have been shown to be one of the most highly digestible forms of the nutrient. They are also rich in choline, which may protect heart health and support cognitive performance.
Don’t Forget Healthy Sips
Green tea is packed with the antioxidant EGCG, says Dr. Johansen. EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) is a unique plant compound that has been linked to reducing inflammation and helping protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer. Studies have also shown that EGCG may modulate brain activity, helping people feel calmer and less stressed.
Don’t underestimate the power of hydration. “Water is an essential nutrient. Approximately 60 to 70% of the body is water!” says Dr. Johansen. It has multiple functions that support your healthspan, including regulating internal body temperature, flushing out toxins, and supporting the brain, joints, and major metabolic reactions in the body. “If you’re feeling tired or sore, the first place to start is hydration,” says Dr. Johansen.
What to Keep Out of Your Grocery Cart
Just as important as what you eat is what you don’t eat. All of our experts agree to avoid highly processed foods. This includes white flour, snacks like chips and pretzels, sweetened cereals, sweetened juices, soda, bakery products, and certain shelf-stable sauces and dressings. “If your food doesn’t spoil, it’s probably not that great for you,” says Dr. Greene. Try to shop around the edges of the supermarket where you’ll find the freshest food.
The Bottom Line
While our experts endorse these nutrition principles, they also encourage you to pay attention to your own body’s signals. “It varies from person to person,” says Dr. Johansen. “Listen to your body and how it reacts to what you eat.”
This article was medically reviewed by:
Ryan Greene, DO, MS, Board Eligible Integrative and Preventive Medicine Specialist
Leah Johansen, MD, Board Certified Family Practice Doctor, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner
Douglas Lucas, DO, Board Certified in Orthopedic Surgery, Board Eligible in Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine
Vinita Tandon, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Endocrinology and Metabolism