5 foods that help you live longer – and they’re already in your kitchen

Filling up your fruit bowl and snacking on nuts? It’s no surprise that’s good for you, but a new Harvard study confirms it.

There’s good news if you’re trying to reap the benefits of eating more healthily – you might already be doing it, according to new scientific research.

A Harvard University study listed five common foods that can reduce your chances of dying from chronic illness, such as cancer, heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

We all know a healthy diet is good for us, but the study showed that people were 25% less likely to die during the 30-year follow-up period if they had one. And, as the foods mentioned in the study are all plant-based, eating them is good for the planet too. But the best news? You’ve probably already got them in your kitchen.

A range of healthy foods laid out on a tableCredit: Shutterstock/New Africa

The list includes:

  • fruit
  • vegetables
  • nuts
  • whole grains
  • unsaturated oils

What does the research recommend?

Harvard’s research focused on a group of 100,000 Americans between 1986 and 2018. Participants who ate more of the five key foods not only lived longer, but had a 15% lower risk of death from cancer or cardiovascular diseases and a 20% lower risk of death from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. They also cut their risk of death from respiratory diseases by half.

It also suggested that fewer eggs and red and processed meat could benefit health – and the planet.

The researchers proposed that foods be rated with a Planetary Health Diet Index (PHDI) ranking how good they are for health, along with their impact on the environment in terms of water and land use, pollution and emissions.

Linh Bui, a PhD student at the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health, said: “A sustainable dietary pattern should not only be healthy, but also consistent within planetary boundaries for greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental parameters.

“We proposed a new diet score that incorporates the best current scientific evidence of food effects on both health and the environment. The results confirmed that a higher Planetary Health Diet score was associated with a lower risk of mortality.”

Top 5 foods to help you live longer

In no particular order, these are the foods to add to your shopping list if they’re not on there already,

1. Vegetables

The NHS has been advising people to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day for 20 years, which includes canned and frozen food as well as fresh.

Beans and pulses only count as one portion, no matter how many you eat in a day – although they’re a good source of fibre, they contain fewer nutrients than other fruits and vegetables. Sadly, potatoes don’t count, but they’re a valuable source of energy, fibre, B vitamins and potassium – and can also top up our vitamin C.

Consultant dietitian at CityDietitians Sophie Medlin told Saga Exceptional: “They’re full of helpful compounds of vitamins and minerals that are really important for gut, mental and general health, so it’s really important to eat four portions a day.”

2. Fruit

As well as fruit bowl favourites such as bananas, apples and strawberries, some juices can count as one portion of your five a day. Although juice and smoothies have benefits, they can damage your teeth because crushing the fruit releases their naturally-occurring sugars.

If you’re eating tinned fruit, check they have natural juice or water and no added sugar. And if you still have those leftover dates and figs lurking in the cupboard from Christmas, a 30g portion also counts, along with currants and sultanas.

“Fruit is great for vitamins, fibre and hydration and also has lots of polyphenols (plant compounds) that help to support our gut health, brain health and wider health. We want to be aiming for three to four portions of fruit a day,” said Medlin.

3. Whole grains

Fibre is important to help digestion, improve gut health and prevent constipation, and the NHS recommends you should eat 30g (1oz) a day. Whole grains such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta and quinoa are rich in vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre – and they’re some of the best foods for gut health. If they’re not already on the menu, an easy way to add them is to swap white bread for wholemeal or granary and make porridge with whole oats.

“Whole grains are packed with fibre that helps to keep us full between meals and regulates our blood sugar and supports our microbiome and gut health,” said Medlin.

4. Nuts

It’s official: snacking on nuts is a good option, and the British Heart Foundation agrees too. They’re high in unsaturated fats and provide fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. If you’re looking for slightly fewer calories, choose unsalted peanuts and pistachios and make sure they’re not coated in sugar.

“Nuts are brilliant for healthy fats, polyphenols and certain micro-nutrients such as selenium that are harder to find elsewhere. They’re a really healthy snack and can help to displace other, more unhealthy foods such as crisps,” said Medlin.

5. Unsaturated oils

As the British Heart Foundation explains, if you’re using olive or sunflower oil to cook or as a salad dressing, you’re already ticking the unsaturated fat box. And if you’re not, it’s an easy swap you can make.

Fats are an important part of a healthy diet and they help the body absorb vitamins A, D and E. Not all fats are equal: saturated fats are the kind that are found in sausages, bacon, cheese, pastry and biscuits, so go easy on those.

“Unsaturated fats that come from olive oil, avocados and nuts are really important for things like brain health and eyesight, so include plenty in your diet, but if you’re trying to manage your weight be careful how many you consume,” said Medlin.

Hannah Verdier

Written by Hannah Verdier

Updated:

Hannah Verdier writes about fitness, health, relationships, podcasts, TV and the joy of reinventing yourself at 50 and beyond. She’s a graduate of teenage music bible Smash Hits and has a side hustle as a fitness trainer who shows people who hated PE at school how to love exercise.

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