In the early 2000s, scientists discovered that inhabitants of five “longevity hotspots” in the world were up to 10 times more likely to live to the age of 100 than people in other regions, including the United States. They call these hotspots “Blue Zones”.
If the average life expectancy of an American born today is 78.2 years, what are the inhabitants of these regions doing that Americans are not? Well, researchers found nine common denominators among these regions that contributed to the longevity of the inhabitants. Some include social behaviors, others are based on how we deal with stress, but a few include consuming a diet rich in vegetables and whole grains and very small amounts of meat.
Since poor diet is now a leading cause of death across the globe, much in part due to the “Westernization” of many traditional diets, we’re uncovering ten foods that are scientifically proven to contribute to long-term health, and trust us, they’re easier to slip into your current diet than you may think!
Coffee is interesting because it is both a food and a drug, but there is a lot of positive research regarding the beverage that helps many people wake up or stay alert. One of coffee’s great benefits is that it is linked to increased brain health.
In a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers found that people who consistently drank one or two cups of coffee per day had a lower rate of mild cognitive impairment than those who never or rarely drink coffee. Mild cognitive impairment is a transitional stage between the expected cognitive decline of aging and the more serious decline associated with dementia.
Coffee is also associated with benefits to vascular health, which in turn can benefit brain health. In a ten-year study presented at the European Cardiac Society Congress 2017, researchers found that drinking at least four cups of coffee a day reduced the risk of death by 64 percent compared to those who infrequently or never consume coffee. Four cups sound like too much? The study also found that those who drank two cups a day reduced their risk of death by 22 percent.
If you find that the caffeine in coffee comes with unwanted side effects, you can reap the health benefits from decaf as well.
Salmon and other high-fat fish
Omega-3 fatty acids have long been touted for their cardiovascular and brain health benefits. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in many types of fish are known to be very important for the brain and heart over a long period of time, reducing the risk of dementia and heart disease.
But did you know there are also omega-6 fatty acids? These fatty acids are usually found in some vegetable oils, salad dressings and mayonnaise, and processed foods like those you’d find in the fast food drive-thru or down the cookie and chip aisle. Unlike their omega-3 counterparts, omega-6 fatty acids are shown to promote inflammation, which is bad for vascular health. That’s why it’s important to have the proper ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 in your diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids can also be found in plant sources, like walnuts and flaxseeds, but the body is not able to convert them as efficiently. If you don’t eat seafood, you can take a supplement of omega-3 fish or krill oil, but always speak to your physician first before starting a new regimen.
Although we mentioned nuts’ health benefits above, they deserve a category all their own because their benefits go far beyond omega-3s. Nuts have additional nutritional value, like vitamins, fiber and protein, and almonds have even been shown to improve your level of good cholesterol.
Peanuts, which are technically a legume, have also been shown to improve heart health and longevity, but before you open up the jar of peanut butter, know that it hasn’t been shown to have the same benefits, possibly due to added sugar and hydrogenated oils.
To reap the most reward, stick with raw or roasted (watch the salt!) nuts. Need an extra excuse to snack on that can of mixed nuts? Walnuts have been found to reduce activity in the brain that causes food cravings so you can strike hunger wisely.
We couldn’t talk about peanuts without including the entire legume family, which includes beans, peas and lentils. Packed with protein, fiber, folate, zinc, iron and magnesium, legumes have been linked to a number of health benefits like reducing blood pressure and lowering the risk of coronary heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
A study looking at over 135,000 people in 18 countries found that those who ate just one serving of legumes per day decreased their risk of cardiovascular disease and even death.
Researchers in the study noted that legume consumption is not widespread outside of the geographic locations they examined, proposing that inclusion of legumes in European and North American diets could be favorable.
Blue Zones researchers have found that the diet of those who live to reach the centennial mark mostly consist of legumes, giving them enough reason to include the slant toward plant-based diets in their Power 9® tenets of longevity.
Eat the rainbow
Think of the last food chart or healthy plate diagram you’ve seen and you’re most likely to remember how colorful it was. That isn’t an accident. Experts strongly recommend eating a colorful diet and consuming fewer pale, white or starch-colored items.
There is no singular reason why vegetables lower cardiovascular and cancer risks, but including as many as you comfortably can into your diet can help keep you healthy and might even prevent poor health. Keep in mind that the nutrient level of the vegetable is directly correlated to the richness of the color. For example, although iceberg lettuce is a leafy green just like kale, spinach and collard greens, it has relatively little nutritional value compared to its leafy counterparts.
Fruits and berries
If you’ve seen berries and “superfood” commonly used together, it’s because of their high levels of antioxidants, a compound that helps stop or delay damage to healthy cells.
Fruit is high in vitamins and fiber, and even though it tends to be high in sugar, it is still a wiser choice than most things Americans tend to snack on. Citrus has been linked to reduced risk of leukemia and esophageal cancer. Apples have been shown to reduce the risk of several types of cancer, including but not limited to lung, breast and colorectal. And grapes have been linked to a number of health benefits due to high levels of resveratrol.
Although the word “fermented” might not conjure up thoughts of delicious food, a lot of popular favorites fall under the category, like yogurt, sauerkraut and pickles.
These fermented food items help provide beneficial bacteria to our gut, and a healthy gut has been linked to numerous things like a reduction of depression, cancer and obesity risk.
Whole grains have earned a spot on this list, but the jury is still out on whether they’re a superfood or just superior to processed grains like those found in white bread or all-purpose flour.
A whole grain is a grain that still has the germ and bran attached; processed or refined grains strip those away. Those two components are nutrient-powerhouses of the grain, so stripping them away leaves little nutritional value behind.
In epidemiological—the study of incidence, distribution and control of disease—studies, whole grains have been shown to reduce cardiovascular risk, diabetes and colon cancer, as well as promoting a longer life.
Turmeric and other spices
Turmeric has become the poster child of the spice world as of late, with many drink and food recipes popping up on popular social media platforms touting its numerous health benefits. The bright yellow spice has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Before you start adding it into your diet, those undergoing chemotherapy should speak to their physician first since turmeric has also been shown to inhibit some chemotherapies.
Cinnamon has been shown to help reduce blood sugar levels, and the spice-inducing capsaicin of chili peppers has been linked to cardiovascular health. Just like vegetables, there is no singular reason why various spices promote good health, so adding a variety of spices to your life is a simple and tasty way to improve your health. After all, variety is the spice of life.
We love to end things on a good note, which is why we’ve saved one of the world’s favorite indulgences for last. But before you cash in your golden ticket, there is a catch: in order to reap the health benefits, you need to eat dark chocolate instead of milk or white chocolate.
If you remember the food pyramid, sweets are at the highest point of the pyramid, because, as we all know, a diet rich in sweets is generally not good. So how does dark chocolate get a pass? It contains the lowest amount of sugar and the highest amount of cacao, which gives it its distinctly bitter taste. The polyphenols in cacao also provide cognition, cardiovascular and neurological benefits.
Even though this is a good list of various foods, we know life gets hectic and it’s not possible to eat only these ten foods all the time. However, including them in your diet as realistically as you can is a step in the right direction, and can not only improve your health and longevity but help promote a healthier diet among Americans.
This post was originally posted at AreYouaWellBeing.TexasHealth.org.