What you eat can make a big difference to the number of healthy years you’ll enjoy as you age. Health writer Karen Fittall investigates how to plate up for a healthy, longer life.
How to live in good health for longer — not just adding more years to life — is one of the great challenges facing modern society.
World Health Organization figures show healthy life expectancy, or the number of years spent living in good health, varies around the world, with Japan, Switzerland and South Korea ranking the best.
If you think you can do better, a great place to start is with what you put on your plate. A recent study identified eating a healthy diet as one of five lifestyle factors that can add up to a decade to your healthy life expectancy. So, drawing on the latest research, here’s what to eat if you want to live longer, healthier and happier — regardless of how old you are.
Eat… One a day
To… reduce your risk of developing age-related macular degeneration. It’s the third leading cause of blindness worldwide, and projections are that it will affect 288 million people by 2040.
The Australian scientists who made the link between oranges and eye health say it’s thanks to the fruit’s unique mix of antioxidants called flavonoids. While other foods, including other citrus fruits, do contain flavonoids, only oranges offer protection against macular degeneration, the 2018 study found.
Green leafy veggies
Eat… One cup of spinach, rocket or lettuce a day
To… help maintain your muscle strength and your mobility as you grow older(a decrease in either of these is linked to a shorter lifespan). Poor strength and function are also associated with other adverse outcomes like falls and fractures, which substantially compromise a person’s independence, an Edith Cowan University study found. Eating one cup of spinach, rocket or lettuce a day can help increase your grip strength by up to 2 kilograms.
Always try to select conventionally-grown green leafy vegetables rather than the organic varieties, as the non-organic variety tend to contain higher levels of nitrates — the compounds that researchers believe are responsible for mobility and muscle-strengthening benefits through life.
Eat… A handful of sprigs a day
To… keep your vitamin K levels topped up. It’s a nutrient that’s thought to help the body fight the build-up of calcium in joint cartilage that contributes to the development of osteoarthritis. More than 500 million people worldwide are already living with it, but self-reported information suggests that one-third or more of people over 65 are affected by arthritis.
Vitamin K is fat soluble, so your body will absorb more of it from the parsley if you pair it with a source of healthy fat, such as avocado, olive oil or oily fish such as salmon.
Eat… Two a day
To… help you keep your cholesterol levels in check. It’s one way to reduce your risk of heart disease, which is estimated to kill around 17.9 million people a year globally.
Leave the skin on your apples. The fruit’s cholesterol-lowering ability is due to it being loaded with antioxidants called proanthocyanidins, levels of which are highest in apple skin rather than the flesh.
Blueberries, broccoli and tea
Eat… One cup of each every day
To… bump up your intake of antioxidant flavonoids to 500mg a day. When you consume all three — in combination with the daily dose of apples and oranges suggested earlier — you reach 500mg. According to a study published last year, that’s the magic number to aim for to increase lifespan and stave off diseases, particularly cancers.
Avoid the temptation to consume more of one flavonoid-rich food, while ditching others. The 2019 study says it’s a mix of six different types of flavonoids that provides a protective effect, so eating a variety of flavonoid-rich foods is key.
Eat… 40g a day
To… slash your risk of age-related hearing loss. Fish is the best dietary source of long-chain omega–3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory and tissue-protective actions that deliver a protective effect for hearing.
While oily varieties of fish contain higher levels of omega–3s, research now shows that eating any type of fish lowers the risk of hearing loss. And if you don’t fancy eating a small serve of fish every day, don’t panic: consuming a 150g serve (about the size of your hand) at least two times a week will also do the happy-hearing trick.
Eat… Five a day
To… help prevent bone loss that contributes to osteoporosis. Prunes suppress bone resorption, where the breakdown of bone exceeds the rate of new bone growth as we age. Scientists say prunes contain a couple of different bone-friendly nutrients, including potassium and vitamin K, which influence calcium balance to improve bone density.
Dried fruit like prunes contains a surprising amount of sugar, which can cause acid attacks on your tooth enamel.
To lower the risk, chew a piece of sugar-free gum for 20 minutes after you’ve eaten prunes, which encourages your mouth to produce more saliva to neutralise decay-causing acid attacks.
Eat… One a day
To… help cut your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by as much as 38 per cent. Type 2 diabetes risk tends to increase with age and can trigger a range of health complications including kidney failure, amputations, blindness and heart attacks.
The scientists who discovered the link between eggs and type 2 diabetes protection last year are yet to confirm exactly what it is about eggs that offers us protection. So for now, buy the most nutrient-dense eggs you can find, which current research suggests are free-range eggs rather than cage ones.
Eat… Two or three teaspoons a day
To… improve valuable aspects of your brain function, including thinking, reasoning and memory, by 60 per cent once you’re aged over 55. University of South Australia researchers say it equates in real terms to buying yourself up to two extra years unaffected by cognitive decline.
Make walnuts your go-to nut. A January study shows they’re especially rich in the fats and antioxidants that fight the inflammation and oxidative stress that drive cognitive decline.
Eat… three-quarters of a cup a day
To… lose weight and keep it off. That matters because even modest weight gain in mid-life cuts the chances of healthy ageing, according to a 2017 study. Legumes increase feelings of fullness by 31 per cent after you’ve eaten them, which results in eating less food overall.
Canned legumes, like chickpeas, lentils and beans are convenient, but it pays to check how much sodium your favourite brand contains. Swap it for a lower sodium choice if you need to. Look for brands that contain less than 120mg of sodium per 100g, which are often the ones that have the words ‘no added salt’ or ‘reduced salt’ on the label.
Quitting carbs? Not so fast …
Higher-protein, lower-carb diets like Atkins, paleo and keto might be popular now, but according to emerging evidence from the University of Sydney, the real secret to healthy ageing may be the exact opposite.
Scientists at the university’s Charles Perkins Centre found higher-carb, lower-protein eating patterns in animals worked best to boost levels of FGF21, an anti-ageing hormone, and to switch off the underlying biological machinery known to drive accelerated ageing.
Interestingly, research confirms it’s an eating style that’s almost identical to the traditional diet on the island of Okinawa, home to some of the world’s longest-lived, healthiest people.
But before you start to pile your plate with processed cakes and cookies, the Sydney-based researchers stress the importance of pairing smaller serves of protein with plenty of ‘healthy’ carbs — such as vegetables and whole grains — that suppress appetite and promote a healthy gut environment.
5 habits that accelerate ageing
Want to blow out 100 candles on your cake one day? Ditch or cut back on these five unhealthy habits:
Experts agree smoking is one of the most prominent risk factors that contribute to premature ageing.
2 Drinking excess alcohol
Cut back on booze by consuming no more than two standard drinks a day, with several alcohol-free days per week.
3 Eating too much sodium
Avoid using salt during cooking, and cut back on high-sodium foods such as processed meats, takeaways and bottled sauces.
4 Burning your food
The process of browning food, particularly at high temperatures (more than 250ºC), produces a group of potentially dangerous compounds that promote ageing from within.
5 Not eating enough fruit and veg
Make fresh produce a priority by filling half of your plate with vegetables at each main meal, and snacking on fruit and veg.
Did you know?
On average, women live 6 to 8 years longer than men.
Article sources and references
- AIHW. 2015. Australian Burden of Disease Study: impact and causes of illness and death in Australia. Accessed January 2020https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/burden-of-disease/burden-disease-study-illness-death-2015/summary
- Arthritis Australia. 2017. Time to move: osteoarthritis — a national strategy to reduce a costly burden.https://arthritisaustralia.com.au/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Final_Time_to_Move_Osteoarthritis.pdf
- David J Hunter, Lyn March, Mabel Chew. Osteoarthritis in 2020 and beyond: a Lancet Commission. Lancet, November 04, 2020DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)32230-3https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32230-3/fulltext
- Gregory A.Roth, MPHaGeorge A.Mensah, et al. Global Burden of Cardiovascular Diseases and Risk Factors, 1990–2019: Update From the GBD 2019 Study. JACC, 22 December 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2020.11.010https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0735109720377755
- California Dried Plum Board. 2017. A daily serving of 5 prunes helps slow bone loss and lowers the risk of osteoporosis. Accessed january 2020https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/a-daily-serving-of-5-prunes-helps-slow-bone-loss-and-lowers-the-risk-of-osteoporosis-651416643.html
- Diabetes Australia. 2020. Diabetes in Australia. Accessed January 2020https://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/
- Edith Cowan University. 2019. Leafy greens key to maintaining muscles. Accessed January 2020https://www.ecu.edu.au/features/postgraduate/leafy-greens-key-to-maintaining-muscles
- Egg Nutrition Center. 2019. Egg metabolites lower type 2 diabetes risk: insights into a potential mechanism. Accessed January 2020https://www.eggnutritioncenter.org/articles/category/uncategorized/page/4/
- Gopinath et al. 2010. Consumption of omega-3 fatty acids and fish and risk of age-related hearing loss. Am J Clin Nutr. 92(2): 416–21.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20534742/