The Search for the Anti-Aging Diet

By Peter Jaret, November/December 2007

New studies suggest healthy eating may add years to your life.

"The point is, nutrient density, not calories, in food, is key. "

Dinner at the Longevity Cafe

The more I poked through the research, the longer my list of age-defying foods became. Wine or other alcoholic beverages deserve a place at the table; they’ve consistently been associated with lower mortality, as long as they’re consumed in moderation. Blueberries, too, as they’ve been shown to ward off age-related brain impairments.

I was hoping to add an item or two to the list when I put in a call to Katherine L. Tucker, Ph.D., director of the nutritional epidemiology research program at Tufts University. Tucker has been sifting through 50 years of data from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the longest-running study of aging in the world. When I asked her what foods have popped up in her findings, she gently steered the question in a different direction. What mattered more than single foods, she said, was overall food patterns.

“It’s always been tempting to look at a particular food and then home in on what it contains. That’s how a lot of nutrition science has been conducted,” she explained. When fruits and vegetables rich in beta carotene showed up in many studies, for instance, researchers rushed to test beta-carotene supplements—experiments that went famously wrong when the pills offered no special benefits and posed some danger. The experience encouraged many nutrition scientists to go back to studying eating patterns, since people eat foods in combination, not one at a time.

Tucker pointed to results from a recent analysis she did of 501 men from the study. Over time, those who helped themselves to lots of fruits and vegetables were less likely to develop heart disease and more likely to be alive at the end of 18 years of study. Each serving of fruits and vegetables was associated with a 6 percent reduction in risk of death from any cause. Men who limited their saturated fat also reduced their risk of heart disease. But far and away the most impressive benefits fell to men who served up fruits and vegetables and cut back on saturated fat: they slashed their risk of dying of heart disease by 76 percent and of any cause by 31 percent during the study period.

Current health recommendations don’t stop with fruits and vegetables and saturated fat, of course. Most of us know the advice by heart: 1) Get plenty of whole grains; 2) Eat fish a couple of times a week; 3) Eliminate trans fats; 4) Take a glass of wine with dinner if you’d like; 5) Don’t smoke. What’s the payoff for following all the best advice to the letter? To find that out, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health looked at more than 84,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study. Those who got a gold star for following each of these five “commandments” cut their risk of heart attacks and other coronary events by a spectacular 82 percent.

Because so many variables are involved, scientists can’t say exactly how many extra years of life you or I will gain by eating well and staying active. But when I asked Harvard nutrition scientist Meir Stampfer, M.D., Ph.D., he estimated that the women in the Nurses’ Health Study who followed all the best health advice might be adding an additional 14 years to their lives. Joan Sabaté, M.D., Ph.D., chair of nutrition at Loma Linda University, told me the Seventh-Day Adventists add an extra 10 years to their lives, on average, thanks to five lifestyle factors: being vegetarian, not smoking, exercising frequently, maintaining a healthy weight and eating lots of nuts.

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