Beyond killer diets: What to eat to live longer

When it comes to preventing serious diseases, it really comes down to one simple choice: eat healthier.

Andy De Santis, RD 4 minute read January 27, 2021
Diet and aging

A look at the foods that can help you live a long, healthy life. Getty

Today’s post is all about identifying the food groups that are associated with longevity, and the ones that aren’t.

Many diseases can be prevented, or at least managed with a better diet. Take, for example, cancer and heart disease, both of which are the leading causes of death in Canada, and both can be influenced by what you choose to put into your body. Of course, we all know of someone who lived healthily, exercising and eating well, yet develops a serious illness. That isn’t a reason to throw proper nutrition out the window. People who eat better tend to live longer and have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Plus, by making smart food choices , you are giving your body the best chance of managing these, and other, health issues and preventing complications.

According to the The Lancet, a poor diet is responsible for one in five deaths globally. That’s a big number. So how can we close this gap? Let’s take a look at the foods that decrease our risk of mortality and those that increase it.

Foods that lower risk of death
Studiesshow that those who eat the most of these foods tend to have a lower risk of death by any cause than those who eat them the least:

Whole Grains. Quinoa, barley, brown rice and oatmeal are just a few examples of whole grains that are packed with essential nutrients including protein, fibre and trace minerals such as iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium.

Fruit. All fruits are great, providing essential nutrients to keep our bodies running in tip-top shape. Berries, particularly blueberries and strawberries, are particularly of note because of their high antioxidant content. Antioxidants prevent cell damage.

Nuts and seeds. Perhaps most famous for a healthy fat content, nuts and seeds, like almonds, walnuts and sunflower seeds, are among the healthiest food you can eat. There is a slight caveat here since they can be high in calories, so a handful per day is a good amount.

Legumes. Legumes are plant foods, and include lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans and soy-based foods like tofu, tempeh and edamame. Naturally low in fat and cholesterol, legumes also contain fibre, protein and important minerals, like magnesium.

Seafood. Fatty fish, like salmon, are particularly high in brain-boosting nutrients, like omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D.

Vegetables. No surprises here. And while leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach are packed with nutrients and are arguably the most important, all vegetables play a meaningful role in a life-enhancing diet.

Calcium-rich foods. Calcium is important for the body. It builds strong bones and teeth, but also helps our blood clot and keeps our hearts healthy. Dairy and plant-based dairy alternatives contain a great deal of calcium, but so do many of the foods in the above food groups.

Now what about the foods that potentially shorten your life? People who eat the largest amounts of the food below, compared to those who eat the least, have a higher risk of death by any cause.

Let’s start with meat.

Red meat. Beef, lamb, and pork are just some examples of red meats that should be eaten in moderation. They have more saturated fat — the bad kind, which can raise cholesterol — than chicken, fish and vegetable proteins like beans and nuts and seeds.

Processed Red Meat. Anything that is smoked, smoked, cured or salted. like bacon, salami, sausages and hot dogs often has added fat and salt that increase your risk of certain types of cancer.

Sugar sweetened beverages. In case this one isn’t a no-brainer for you, all types of pop and other flavoured drinks have high amounts of sugar which contributes to everything from tooth decay and skin issues to heart disease. Plus, they provide a lot of sugar without much nutritional value, so be wary of how much you consume.

“Ultra-processed” foods. The British Medical Journal conducted a study which found that over-processed foods, like the meats and soda mentioned above, as well as cookies, muffins and donuts contributed to an increased risk of death by any cause. Also included was whisky and gin.

While deciphering and applying scientific findings in the world of nutrition can be complicated, my interpretation of the data is pretty simple: eat a few more plants, and a few less animals.

Andy is a registered dietitian and author who has operated a private practice in Toronto since 2015. He spends his free time eating, writing and talking about kale @AndyTheRD. He can be reached at

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