By Haley Golich MS, RD and Geoff Borro MS, RD, CSSD
When we hear the word “diet,” we often think of fads and cutting calories to lose those extra pounds. While calorie reduction and the associated weight loss can be an effective way to help us age more healthfully, this is only one piece of the puzzle. The quality of our food choices is just as important to ensuring the quality of our lives.
With this in mind, what diet, or eating style, is the best for living a long and healthy life? While we would love to provide a sure-fire answer, the truth is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Each year, US News & World Report ranks the best diets of the year based on a number of health factors. Coming in at the top of the list this year (and for many years running) is the Mediterranean Diet, followed by the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet and the Flexitarian Diet. While you can read about the specifics of each of these and many other diets on the US News & World Report website, we will focus on the similarities between these eating styles and how they can help us to age healthfully. Read on to learn more about the characteristics that these three healthful diets have in common.
Emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables
Fresh fruits and vegetables are nutrient dense, containing tons of essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Not only will these nutrients help our bodies function properly and keep us feeling full longer, but they also deliver anti-inflammatory benefits and improved gut health, two keys to chronic disease prevention.
Little to no highly processed foods and added sugars
Processed foods tend to be more calorie dense and nutrient poor than their fresh, non-processed counterparts. In addition to being higher in added sugar, sodium, and fat, they also have lower levels of fiber and micronutrients. While these foods are designed to taste good and be appealing to us, they can also contribute to diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.
Focus on lean and plant-based proteins
A high intake of processed meat and red meat has been classified as carcinogenic and probably carcinogenic, respectively.1 Additionally, all three diets recommend limiting whole fat dairy products like whole milk, cheese, and whole fat yogurt due to their high saturated fat content. Instead, lean cuts of meat and plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts, and soy are highlighted. These options provide essential amino acids along with fiber (from the plant-based proteins), vitamins, and minerals.
Promotion of healthy fat intake
Omega-6 fats (processed foods and seed oils) and saturated fats (animal products) are pro-inflammatory in some individuals.2 While it is essential for our body to have an inflammatory response for healing, too much inflammation over a long period of time contributes to diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. Incorporation of healthy fats like Omega-3 fats (found in fatty fish, nuts and seeds) and monounsaturated fats (found in avocados/avocado oil, olives/olive oil, and almonds) has an anti-inflammatory effect. As such, examining the types of fat in our diet and making healthy substitutions bodes well for our long-term health.
Whole grains vs refined grains
Whole grains provide a plethora of health benefits. They deliver essential B vitamins to support metabolism and red blood cell production, as well as soluble fiber which can help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Refined grains, on the other hand, are stripped of these important nutrients. What is more, they are often replaced with added fat, sodium, and sugar. Grains provide our bodies with carbohydrates, which are essential to feeling and performing our best. When choosing whole grains, check the ingredients list – there should be only one ingredient!
Limited alcohol consumption
Let’s face it—alcohol is a toxin and is classified as a carcinogen. With the exception of some cardiovascular benefits from moderate red wine consumption, alcohol does little to benefit us when it comes to aging healthfully. If consuming alcohol is something that is important to you, consider limiting yourself to no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 drinks per day for men.
Less is more
Ready to jump in and start one of the three best diets of the year? Well, we recommend taking things more slowly. Rather than making a big and sudden change to your current eating style (which rarely produces lasting change), consider focusing your efforts on one specific area of your diet. Perhaps this means increasing your fresh fruit and vegetable intake by 1-2 servings per day, swapping out saturated fats with olive or avocado oil, or perhaps cutting back on your alcohol and refined sugar intake. Whatever you choose, focus on being successful with that commitment one day at a time. A recent Harvard study focused on diet and longevity found that those who improved their diet by just 25% saw significant reduced risk of mortality from a number of chronic diseases, so less really is more!3
Remember, the road to a longer, better quality life consists of small but significant changes, one day at a time. This week, take an inventory of your current eating habits and commit to one small change that can help you age more healthfully. You’ll be glad you did!