Would you rather add years to your life or life to your years? Smart food choices may help you do both.
Diet appears to play a role in free-radical damage (which alters cells’ functioning), inflammation and gut bacteria. Diet also affects the length of telomeres — protective caps at the end of chromosomes. These factors can have an impact on conditions such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, hypertension, respiratory disorders, cognitive decline and infection.
“We’re trying to target the biology of aging to delay the onset of age-related diseases and extend the number of healthy, active, productive years,” says Nathan LeBrasseur, director of the Healthy Aging and Independent Living Program at the Mayo Clinic. “Diet can play a major role in that.” Though following an overall healthy diet is most important, research suggests that certain foods may give you an extra boost. Here, five foods to consider:
Beans are rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and plant polyphenols that have protective benefits, especially for your heart. A large research review found that, compared with eating lesser amounts of beans, peas, lentils and tofu, eating four half-cup servings per week was linked to a 14 percent decrease in the risk of dying of ischemic heart disease (which occurs when the arteries of the heart become blocked) during a follow-up that averaged 13.1 years. Beans are a good source of soluble fiber, too, which helps lower levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides.
Research suggests that nuts may be tiny packages of healthy goodness. Take, for example, a New England Journal of Medicine study that followed almost 120,000 men and women for 30 years. Study volunteers who ate at least an ounce of nuts (about 23 almonds, 18 cashews, 12 macadamia nuts or 14 walnut halves) daily had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from several conditions — especially cancer, heart disease and respiratory problems — during the study period than people who ate no nuts. Even those who downed nuts two to four times per week had a 13 percent lower risk of dying.
Nuts are high in monounsaturated fat, which helps lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Studies have also shown that nuts’ antioxidants may keep blood vessels supple — hardened arteries are a sign of heart disease — and improve your body’s use of insulin. Nuts have about 160 to 200 calories per ounce, but in the study above, frequent nut eaters weighed less than those who abstained.
It really may be that good for you. A study of nearly 21,000 adults published in the journal Heart found that, compared with those who ate little to no chocolate, those who ate the most chocolate (half an ounce to 3½ ounces daily) had a 25 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease and were 23 percent less likely to have a stroke over an 11-year follow-up. Flavonoids in chocolate may improve blood vessel function, which can lower blood pressure and clotting. It’s high in calories, sugar and saturated fat, though. Dark chocolate has more flavonoids and less sugar than milk chocolate.
Despite carbs’ bad reputation in many circles, research shows that whole grains (instead of refined carbs such as white bread and white rice) reduce your risk of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, infectious disease and respiratory problems. A review of 45 studies found that people who ate seven daily servings of whole grains were far less likely to have the above conditions or die from any cause during the study periods. Even one or two daily servings may have a benefit.
“They’re the total nutrient package,” says researcher Penny Kris-Etherton, a distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. “They have antioxidants, B vitamins, fiber, polyphenols.” These substances, she says, help reduce risk of heart disease.
For further guidance, go to ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.