Medically reviewed by Mary Ahern MS, RDN, RYT January 15, 2024| Written by Zenda Nel

Eating for Longevity

The quest for longevity is as old as man. Surely, anyone who adores his life would want to live as long as possible. In other words, he’d wish for ‘longevity’ or an extension in his supposed lifespan. Several philosophers and great thinkers have confessed this human desire throughout history.  In fact, the same was reiterated by the much-celebrated biologist,Professor Raymond Pearl:"For the will to live, the quest for longevity, is the most deeply rooted and persistent of the biological characteristics of protoplasm organized into individuals."

That said, the interest in ways to prolong life has increased within the past few years. An extreme example is the multimillionaire tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson - who is spending about $2 million a year just trying not to die. His efforts include a limited-calorie vegan diet and some 111 pills every day.

For the rest of us, living longer will have to be less complicated and economical.

Several factors contribute to a long life. These include genetics, diet, healthy lifestyle, adequate sleep and socialization as well as no smoking and little to no alcohol intake. 

This article will focus on diet as one of the most significant factors contributing to longevity. The aim of these diets is not merely to extend life as long as possible. But also to debunk deep-seated notions about age and aging - namely that the older you get, the sicker you will be. It doesn't have to be like that and there are societies where healthy elderly people prove this perspective.

The Role of Nutrition in Promoting Longevity

Science has established a correlation between diet and poor health in humans. For instance, it's well-known that a diet high in fat and sugar leads to obesity and type 2 diabetes. When it comes to the link between diet and aging, scientists have mainly relied on animal studies. It’s because it's not usually feasible or ethical to conduct controlled trials on the effects of extremely low-calorie diets on aging and lifespan in humans.

Studies in animals have found that extremely low-calorie diets can increase the lifespan of animals like mice, rats, and monkeys. While it's also true that monks who live on calorie-restricted diets have long and healthy lives, most of us are not interested in a diet that excludes too many foods we love. 

What most people need is longevity diets that are not only healthy but also easy to maintain. 

That said, the studies available so far have hinted that a healthy diet can add a couple of years to one's lifespan. 

In one such study, theNew England Journal of Medicine followed the diet and lifestyle habits of roughly 74,000 people, without heart disease, between the ages of 30 and 75 for more than two decades. Scientists tracked their diets every four years. To quantify the quality and overall healthiness of their diets, researchers used several different and well-established diet scores. 

In these scoring systems, “unhealthy” foods such as red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, pizza, and chips received low scores, while “healthy” foods such as fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, fish, and olive oil received high scores.

When the researchers analyzed data, they discovered that individuals who maintained high diet scores over 12 years were up to at least 14 percent less likely to die early than those who followed poor, low-quality diet plans. 

The researchers also found that if participants improved their diet scores over time, they reduced their risk of dying from chronic diseases like cancer, dementia, and heart problems. 

While this study demonstrated a link between diet quality and longevity. This also suggested that improving diet even later in life can prolong the lifespan of a person. After all, the participants in this study were either 30 or above. 

The Best Diets for a Long Life

We are always urged to follow a well-balanced diet for a healthy life. Now, that sounds pretty straightforward. But it’s not as simple because people disagree on what constitutes a balanced diet. Besides, it’s becoming clear every day that nutritional needs vary among individuals. So, a one-size-fits-all dietary recommendation is not appropriate.  

In other words, a longevity diet wouldn't be the same for everyone. 

It's also important to remember that a longevity diet is not a diet in the traditional sense of the word. It is not an eating regime to lose weight; it's an eating lifestyle to live longer. Rather, it's a way of living and eating that helps people to live healthy lives into their old age and postpone or avoid health conditions normally associated with advanced age. 

However, a healthy diet alone won't guarantee a long life. Say you eat well, but drink wine with every meal and don't get any exercise. So, you will probably only do well for a short time. 

Interestingly, the word 'diet' originates from anold Greek word 'diaita', which has to do with equilibrium and lifestyle.  

Several diets have become known for the long and healthy lives of the populations that follow them. 

1. Mediterranean Diet

TheMediterranean Diet is a way of eating that originated in the coastal regions of Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Spain, Italy, France, and Northern Africa. 

Many people in these regions eat predominantly a Mediterranean diet. That means they consume:

  • High volumes of olive oil, vegetables, legumes, fruits, and unrefined cereals
  • Regular but moderate volumes of wine, typically one glass (8 oz) at lunch or dinner 
  • Moderate to high amounts of fish
  • Low amounts of meat, reserved for special occasions 
  • Low to moderate amounts of dairy products

Extra virgin olive oil is the star of the Mediterranean diet. In Greece, everyone consumes roughly20liters of olive oil annually. Spain, Italy, Portugal, Syria, Morocco, and Tunisia are the other serious consumers of olive oil. In these countries, extra virgin olive oil is used for cooking and as a condiment to flavor dishes.

If you are wondering if there's any proof that this diet is any good, here is what scientists say:"The Mediterranean diet representsthe gold standard in preventive medicine." 

A review of 19 observational studies found a lower risk of serious heart-related issues and stroke concerns among Mediterranean diet consumers. So, this diet showed a lower risk of early death or becoming disabled. 

Researchers also found evidence that the Mediterranean diet is inversely related to heart failure.

2. Blue Zones Diet

Abook written by Dan Buettner has identified so-called "blue zones" where people become very old and don’t suffer from health problems commonly associated with advanced age. These include the Greek island Ikaria, Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica, and Loma Linda in Mexico.

Ikaria, Greece

The inhabitants of Ikaria enjoy a typical Mediterranean diet. A study by theUniversity of Athens found that the Ikarian diet includes olive oil, red wine, fish, coffee, herbal tea, honey, potatoes, garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, and a limited amount of meat, sugar, and dairy products, except goat milk.

The islanders walk everywhere, take a daily noon siesta, and have an active social life with friends and family. The investigators concluded that the high levels of physical activity among the elderly contributed to a range of health benefits.

On average, the islanders not only live 10 years longer than most Europeans but they also enjoy better health conditions. 

Okinawa, Japan

Okinawa is famous for the high percentage of centenarians, who live healthy and active lives until the end of their days. An Okinawa native has about 40 percent higher chance of reaching the age of 100 compared to the rest of the world population. 

The Okinawa longevity is attributed to the healthy local diet and an active lifestyle.

The traditionalOkinawa diet is low in calories and fat but high in carbs. The staples are vegetables and grains. It also includes soy dishes and small amounts of pork, fish, and seafood.

The diet relies heavily on vegetables, including orange and purple sweet potatoes, cabbages, carrots, daikon radishes, bitter melons, seaweeds, kelps, bamboo shoots, pumpkins, and green papayas. Grains include millet, wheat, rice, and noodles made from rice.

Okinawans eat a small amount of tofu, miso, natto, and edamame and very little meat and seafood. The meat is mainly pork and includes all the parts of the animal.

Most of the islanders tend their own gardens where they grow their vegetables and herbs. Also, their tradition is to eat until they are only 80 percent full.

Sardinia, Italy

Sardinia was the first Blue Zone region that Beutner identified. The inhabitants of the island have remained isolated, resulting in an undiluted genetic pool. According to Beuttner, Sardinia has nearly ten times more centenarians per capita than the U.S.

TheSardinian diet is 47 percent whole grains, 26 percent dairy, and 12 percent vegetables. The islanders still hunt, fish, and harvest their food. Their dairy consists of goat and sheep milk products. 

They also consume a handful of nuts every day, particularly almonds, pistachios, and walnuts. Meat is consumed sparingly, reserved for special occasions. Only 3 percent of their calories come from added sugar, which contrasts starkly with the sugar intake of many countries.

Nicoya, Costa Rica

Tales of people living abnormally long lives in Nicoya were confirmed by a2012 study, which revealed that people living on the 80-mile peninsula enjoy an unusually high life expectancy. In fact, the mortality rate at the age of 90 in Costa Rica is at least 14% lower than the average of 13 high-income countries. 

People in Nicoya eat a diet of beans, squash, and corn, called the 'three sisters'. These three foods combined provide a complete protein at a much lower cost than meat and without the saturated fat associated with red meat. 

This diet resembles the Sardinian diet as most of the daily calories come from grains (~26 percent) and dairy (~24 percent). Meanwhile, vegetables make up 14 percent of calories with fruit accounting for only 9 percent. Meat is consumed sparingly but 7 percent of calories come from legumes.

Another factor that might contribute to the health and longevity of the people is the high percentage of calcium in the water.

Loma Linda, California

Loma Linda is home to a community of around 9,000 members of the Seventh-day Adventist church - here in the United States. Most Adventists follow a vegetarian diet with only a handful of followers occasionally consuming low-fat dairy products, eggs, and clean meat. 

But that’s pretty rare as most Adventists are strict vegans who refrain from smoking or drinking.  

A third of what Adventists eat is vegetables and 27 percent of their diet is fruits. They get their protein from legumes and soy, plus the nuts they snack on. 

These five regions or ‘Blue Zones’ share longevity as a common characteristic. But that’s not just a product of a healthy diet but also a sense of community, friendship, and togetherness as well as other healthy habits like regular exercise, moderate use of alcohol, and limited added sugar. Overall, their diets are low in meat, especially red meat, and high in fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and legumes. 

Plant-based Diets 

It is interesting to note that a common thread of the Blue Zones diets is the low intake of meat. 

There is a growing trend of people adopting plant-based diets. Many people are incorporating more plant-based foods into their meals or follow entirely plant-based diets for various reasons, including health, environmental concerns, and ethical considerations. We can observe evidence of this shift in restaurants and supermarkets that are offering more plant-based options.

There ismounting evidence that points to the benefits of a plant-based diet. For example, multiple studies have shown that following a Mediterranean diet, predominantly a plant-based diet, can have a positive impact on life expectancy, lower the risk of chronic diseases like heart problems, and enhance overall well-being. 

Research has shown that plant-based diets have several health benefits that maintain the quality of life despite aging.

Reduced Risk of Heart Disease

A review of published scientific research has shown that a plant-based diet canlower cholesterol and prevent clogged arteries. In fact, the medical profession is so convinced of the ability of a plant-based diet to prevent and even reverse heart disease that the First National Conference on the Elimination and Prevention of Coronary Artery Disease nowrecommends a diet of grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit to minimize the likelihood of stroke, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and various cancers.

Reduced Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer's

A plant-based diet is high in carbohydrates like vegetables and fruits, legumes, grains, and healthy oils, which the brain needs for healthy functioning. A meta-analysis of seven studies representing 31,104 participants concluded that a plant-based diet can help preventAlzheimer’s and dementia.

Reduced Risk of Cancer

While not all cancers are related to diet, the numerous studies that have linked meat consumption to stomach, bowel, and kidney cancer, have led the World Health Organization (WHO) to classify red meat and processed meat ascarcinogenic to humans. So, simply not eating meat, will contribute to a healthier life with a reduced risk of cancer.

However, actively following a diet rich in plant foods kinda protects against cancers. One study found that following a vegetarian dietreduced the risk of colorectal cancer, postmenopausal breast cancer, and prostate cancer.

Superfoods Known for Their Longevity Benefits

You may be wondering if there are any specific foods that you can include in your diet to give yourself a shot at a long and healthy life. 

Cruciferous Vegetables

Broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, chard, kohlrabi, radish, and cauliflower are examples of cruciferous vegetables. These nutrient-dense vegetables are high in fiber, minerals, and vitamins C, K, and folate (vitamin B9).

The reason these vegetables are on this list is their seeming ability to fight many cancers. The National Cancer Institute lists severalStudies in humans and rats that show that the biological compounds in these vegetables can protect cells from DNA damage, inactivate carcinogens, and inhibit metastasis.


Berries are some of the healthiest foods you can eat. They are stuffed with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that reduce the risk of many age-related conditions, according to experts.

The high concentration of antioxidants in berries protects against cell damage. Onestudy found that eating 1 cup and 3/5 of blueberries per day improves protection against free radical damage. Studies done at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have found that eating blueberries can lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes. 

Berry consumption can also reduce the risk of heart attack andfight inflammation, which contributes to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. 


Nuts are highly nutritious. They are low in carbs and a source of plant protein, minerals, vitamins, and healthy fats. Nuts are also loaded with antioxidants. Antioxidantscombat oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals - the unstable molecules that lead to cell damage and disease.

Although nuts are high in fat content, numerous studies have shown that they help with weight loss. Almonds seem to be particularly effective. In one study, 100 overweight women were randomly assigned to eat either 50 grams of almonds per day or none for three months. The group that ate the nuts experienced agreater decrease in waist size and weight loss compared to the control group.


Beans are nutrition powerhouses. They contain plant protein, macronutrients like fatty acids, fibers, and carbohydrates, as well as phytochemicals. They are also high in many minerals. 

Women who often suffer from iron deficiency would do well to eat lentils regularly. After all, studies have shown that eating cooked lentils prevents iron deficiency.

Eating beans offers protection against obesity. It’s because they are rather filling because of the fiber. So, one tends to eat fewer calories yet feel full for longer periods. 

Heart disease is a leading cause of death worldwide, and eating beans may provide protection. A systematic review and meta-analysis found that eating nuts and legumes reduces therisk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes

Lentils are known to be a goodsource of prebiotics. A prebiotic is a type of soluble fiber that acts as fuel for the microbes in your GI tract. The prebiotics in lentils help maintain the microbial environment in the intestine and prevent diseases associated with the intestines.

Olive Oil

A Harvard study published in January 2022 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, indicates that higher consumption of olive oil islinked to an extended lifespan. The study analyzed data from two of the Harvard studies involving over 92,000 healthy individuals in the United States. 

The results showed that those who consumed more than one-half tablespoon of olive oil per day had a 19 percent lower risk of dying from any cause than those who rarely or never had olive oil. 

The researchers also found that olive oil consumption reduced the risk of cardiovascular diseases by 19 percent; cancer by 17 percent; and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease by 29 percent.

Strikingly, those who substituted olive oil for butter, margarine, or mayonnaise lowered their risk of death by 34 percent compared to those who didn't replace other fats with olive oil.


One of the best things we can do to improve our health and prevent chronic diseases for a longer life is to opt for a healthy diet. Inhabitants of the so-called Blue Zones, where people routinely live past 100, are living proof that early death is neither a forgone conclusion nor sickness in old age. These diets are predominantly plant-based, including little or no meat. 

Extensive scientific evidence shows that many chronic diseases can be prevented and even reversed with a whole-food or plant-based diet.

But the communities with the highest longevity rates show that it’s not just food but the idea of enjoying a wholesome diet in the company of friends that extends the lifespan and keeps it free of disease.