You truly are what you eat—so when it comes to longevity, your diet makes a huge impact. “Think of nutrition as you would fueling a car; you wouldn’t expect your sports car to run properly if you put the wrong fuel in it,” says plant-based dietitian Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Plant-Based Eats.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t indulge from time to time—but maintaining healthy eating patterns really does go a long way in helping you lead a long, healthy life.
“Good nutrition and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle can be the difference between aging with independence or having a poor quality of life in your final years,” says Katie Dodd, R.D.N., C.S.G., L.D., F.A.N.D., creator of The Geriatric Dietitian.
So what are some of the most important nutrition do’s and don’ts to keep in mind to ensure the highest quality of life down the line? Here, dietitians break down their best tips.
DO: Embrace a plant-based diet
You don’t have to go fully vegan, but a growing body of research confirms the value of plant-forward diets. “Science and research are beginning to catch up with what many have believed for years: that a plant-based diet has significant health benefits, especially as related to longevity,” says dietitian Trista K. Best, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N.
In addition to supporting heart health, weight loss, and healthy blood sugar, eating a plant-forward diet may also reduce cancer risk. In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research suggests that eating plenty of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients—which you’ll find in plant foods like vegetables, fruit, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds—helps reduce your risk.
DO: Give antioxidants More Attention
Another perk associated with plant-based eating: Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and beans are rich in disease-fighting anti-inflammatory compounds called antioxidants. The benefits of these compounds are plentiful, impacting many aspects of health, so focusing more on them is a good long-term move.
One example: “Research has shown that the MIND Diet, which is high in fruits and vegetables, can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in aging adults,” says Dodd.
Plus, one study published recently in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linked diets rich in fruits and vegetables with slower epigenetic age acceleration. “Epigenetic age acceleration means someone’s DNA shows they are older than their actual age,” explains Dodd. Eating antioxidant-rich produce truly helps you stay young.
Berries, in particular, may be particularly beneficial for upping that antioxidant intake and promoting a long, healthy life. One review published in Scientific Reports, for example, found that people who ate berries regularly had lower LDL cholesterol levels than those who did not—certainly a plus for long-term heart health.
Amp up your antioxidant acumen by incorporating more of these eight antioxidant-rich foods to your daily eats.
DO: Consume enough protein
Protein isn’t just for packing on muscle in your youth, but a vital component of health at all stages of life. “We need muscle to do everything, says Dodd. “Without it, we are unable to care for ourselves and are more likely to fall, get sick, and be hospitalized.”
Luckily, there is some evidence to suggest how much protein you need to support those muscles over time. “A growing body of research supports eating 30 grams of protein at each meal to counteract muscle loss associated with aging, called sarcopenia,” shares dietitian Jamie Rincker, R.D., head of nutrition at Vivo (an interactive strength training program designed for adults over 50).
To hit that mark, you might have a smoothie with protein powder at breakfast, four ounces of grilled chicken on a salad for lunch, and a cup and a half of tofu or three ounces of seitan at dinner, suggests Rincker. Need some inspiration on how to load up on more protein? Here are nine easy ways to boost your intake.
DO: Get more omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are key for brain, heart, eye health, and more. Thing is, most people—especially older adults—don’t get enough of them. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults consume at least eight ounces of seafood a week, since fatty fish is the richest source. However, you can also get some from nuts, seeds, and soy.
“To best protect brain health, adults over 50 should include a fish oil supplement, especially if they do not eat fish on a weekly basis,” recommends Rincker. In addition to supporting brain health, a recent study even links higher intakes of omega-3s with stronger muscles, which (as you now know) are also important for longevity.
The National Institutes of Health advises that adult men and women aim for 1.6 grams and 1.1 grams of ALA (an omega-3 found in plant foods like walnuts and flaxseed) per day, respectively. Meanwhile, the American Heart Association recommends two servings per week of fatty fish like salmon and mackerel for ample amounts of the well-known omega-3s DHA and EPA it offers.
DON’T: Yo-yo diet
Though society in many ways encourages us to hyper-focus on our weight, doing so can lead to potentially harmful weight fluctuations over time. You see, when you lose significant weight, you typically lose precious muscle mass and ultimately gain back more fat mass, have poorer metabolic function, and experience strength losses, according to Rincker. (Have you noticed how important maintaining muscle is yet?)
The more this cycle repeats, the weaker you can become over time—which is especially problematic for older adults, since the ability to do things independently becomes more of a concern at this stage in life, she says. Of course, being caught in this relentless cycle may also have negative impacts on mental health, too.
That said, it’s also important to pay attention to unintentional weight loss. Though weight loss might often seem like a good thing, it can actually be a sign of trouble—especially as you get older. In this case, too, loss of muscle mass (which older adults already tend to experience) is the primary concern.
Consider weighing yourself monthly to monitor for any significant losses. “If you start losing weight unintentionally, talk to your health care team,” she recommends.
DON’T: Eat a lot of red meat
If you eat meat, Gorin advises limiting your intake of red meat (beef, pork, and lamb), specifically. “Eating more has been connected to a higher risk of cancer and death,” she says. “Why increase your risk unnecessarily?”
So how much should you consume, then? Gorin advises limiting red meat intake to about three servings (that means no more than 18 ounces cooked) per week.
Also, by cutting back on red meat, you make more room in your diet for other foods that can have health-supportive properties, she says. Remember what we said about plant foods earlier? Research has associated plant proteins with lower mortality risk compared to animal proteins in people 65 and younger. So, cut back on the bacon now and your future self will thank you.
DON’T: Drink too much alcohol
Though this one might feel like a no-brainer, it’s increasingly important as you get older. “The side effects of excessive alcohol intake can worsen as you age due to physiological changes and potential medications you may then be taking,” says Best. “The liver, the body’s natural detoxifying organ, also ages, becoming less efficient. Potentially damaging it with excess alcohol consumption can reduce your body’s ability to naturally detox, contributing to a higher risk of chronic illness and disease.”
And, no, even that heart-healthy glass of vino doesn’t get a free pass here. “Although some alcohol such as red wine has beneficial attributes, drinking less alcohol is generally considered better for overall health,” Gorin says.
Women should aim to have no more than one drink a day, while men should cap their intake at two, the CDC recommends. Why not try a nonalcoholic beer or a kombucha mocktail to unwind after a long day, instead?
DON’T: Regularly Eat refined carbohydrates
“Refined carbohydrates, like white pasta and bread, are highly inflammatory and can cause a host of health concerns,” says Best. The issue is that these carbs act as food for and create an environment for the growth of bad bacteria in the gut. “When this bacteria outgrows the good, a state known as gut dysbiosis, the body digests foods less efficiently and produces byproducts that are pro-inflammatory,” she adds.
In the long-term, low-grade inflammation such as this has been connected to an increase in chronic illness and disease which can reduce one’s longevity, Best explains.
DON’T: Sleep on hydration
You’re drinking plenty of water, right? If so, consider it a service to your golden years. “Chronic dehydration can lead to less movement and more pain (because of less lubrication available for joints), as well as poor nutrition choices that we make when we mistake thirst for hunger and impulsively reach for low-nutrient snacks,” says Rincker.
Over time, each of these effects ultimately sabotages your health and wellbeing.
If plain ol’ H2O bores you, try jazzing it up with sliced cucumber, berries, watermelon, or a wedge of lemon or lime. Fresh herbs like mint and basil can also enhance water’s flavor.
Not clear on whether you’re drinking enough? Here’s exactly how much you need.