1. Snack on Watermelon
Longevity is the new buzzword. You can't walk into a bookstore without tripping over a best seller about extending your life. With good reason: Centenarians are one of the country's fastest-growing demographic groups; in fact, the U.S. Census Bureau projects they'll increase almost sixfold by 2050. So what's the secret to living longer and healthier? "Good nutrition can extend your life by not just years but decades," says Richard Flanigan, MD, assistant clinical professor of cardiology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Aurora and author of Longevity Made Simple. We've uncovered 10 strategies to help you tap the culinary fountain of youth.
1. Snack on Watermelon
Tomatoes steal the spotlight for being antioxidant powerhouses, but watermelon actually packs more cancer- and heart-disease-fighting lycopene, says Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Age-Proof Your Body. Eating the juicy fruit also helps increase amounts of arginine, an amino acid that helps keep arteries healthy, a key factor in preventing heart disease, the number one killer of women.
Boost the benefits: Store uncut melons on the counter. "Watermelons produce more lycopene at room temperature than when chilled, probably because they continue to ripen," Somer says. Lycopene levels in unrefrigerated watermelons rose about 20 percent in two weeks (they didn't change at all in melons that were refrigerated) in a recent USDA study.
2. Stalk Up
Asparagus packs vitamins A and C — antioxidants that hunt down and destroy free radicals, the oxygen molecules that can "rust" your insides, increasing the effects of aging. This superfood is also one of the best sources of folate, a B vitamin that helps prevent heart disease and may lower your risk for colon cancer. Finally, asparagus is loaded with an amino acid called glutathione that fights premature aging by repairing damage to DNA and boosting immunity, according to Mao Shing Ni, PhD, author of Secrets of Longevity: Hundreds of Ways to Live to Be 100.
Boost the benefits: Quickly steam or stir-fry asparagus.
"The longer you cook it, the more nutrients you lose," Somer says. Boiling this vegetable can also cause it to lose vitamins. Folate is particularly fragile, she adds; it breaks down when exposed to air or extreme temperatures for too long.
3. Raise a (Red) Glass
A daily cocktail can extend your life, research shows. Light drinking reduced women's risk of death by nearly 20 percent in a review of studies involving more than a million people. "All types of alcohol appear to have longevity benefits, but red wine is best," Dr. Flanigan says. That's because unlike beer and hard liquor, it contains resveratrol, a compound that has been shown to increase the life span of some animals, protect skin from signs of aging and, perhaps, help prevent skin cancer. But don't get too happy at happy hour. Women should have only one drink a day; more increases the risk for breast cancer. "You'll get the health perks from that amount without the negative effects of excessive alcohol," Dr. Flanigan says.
Boost the benefits: Act like a wine connoisseur and swish before swallowing. "Resveratrol is absorbed better through the mucous membranes in your mouth than through your stomach," Somer says.
4. Be a Part-Time Vegetarian
Loading up on fruits and vegetables can be a recipe for long life, even if it sounds suspiciously like the advice your mother gave you. In a study of more than 34,000 people, eating a vegetarian diet added about one and a half years to the lives of women who had a healthy lifestyle. "New research suggests that the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables have the ability to fight free radicals and work 24-7 to protect cells from aging," Somer says. On the other hand, the saturated fat in meat increases the risk of heart disease and possibly that of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. But you don't have to give up burgers. "In places with the most centenarians, like Costa Rica and Sardinia, people eat meat but only at special celebrations or as a side dish," says Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest.
Boost the benefits: Use bison, which has fewer calories than beef and nearly half the saturated fat, in chili, kebabs, and burgers, recommends Paulette Lambert, RD, director of nutrition at the California Health & Longevity Institute in Westlake Village, California.
5. Stay Slim
Almost all men who reach age 100 are lean, and women who do are generally trim too, according to the New England Centenarian Study, the largest research project of its kind. "There are few obese centenarians," says lead author Thomas Perls, MD, associate professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University. Excess pounds can lead to a slew of life-threatening conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and some kinds of cancer. Obesity is also associated with suppression of immunity, which can leave you more vulnerable to getting sick, a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association revealed.
Boost the benefits: The earlier you start slimming down, the better. Being overweight in midlife increased the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's decades later in a study of more than 1,400 people published in the Archives of Neurology. To lose a pound a week, cut 500 calories a day (just one Venti Mocha with whipped cream!). Or create a calorie deficit by ditching 200 calories (instead of buying an everything bagel with cream cheese, have a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats with skim milk) and burning an extra 300 (play 40 minutes of tennis).
6. Eat Like an Okinawan
This area of Japan boasts the people with the longest life spans on earth, so stock up on two of their staple foods: tofu and sweet potatoes. Okinawans eat sweet potatoes daily, often as a side dish, and are the world's largest consumers of tofu, downing about 12 ounces a day per person, according to Buettner. Sweet potatoes have more beta-carotene and vitamin C than carrots and more fiber than oat bran and are a rich source of DHEA, a hormone that may help the body defend itself against aging, Ni says, while tofu may help prevent breast cancer and heart disease. Okinawans were found to have 80 percent less breast cancer and more than 50 percent less ovarian and colon cancer than Americans in a study of more than 900 people age 70 and older.
Boost the benefits: Enjoy this dynamic duo by serving steamed sweet potatoes and tofu with a light vinaigrette (Lambert recommends combining two tablespoons of vinegar, one tablespoon of water and one tablespoon of olive oil with fresh herbs like basil and parsley). Studies have shown that beta-carotene is absorbed better when eaten with some fat.
7. Rethink Your Rice
The outer coating of brown rice (which is removed to make white rice) contains a wealth of age-fighting micronutrients, according to Ni. He points out that rural farmers in Asia, who eat brown rice, live longer and develop fewer diseases than city dwellers, who eat mostly white rice. Brown rice is also loaded with magnesium, which may reduce stress, and has double the cholesterol-lowering fiber of white rice.
Boost the benefits: Serve rice al dente. "Slightly undercooking rice, so that it's still chewy, will lower its glycemic index," Somer says. Why that's a good thing: Foods with a high glycemic index make your insulin spike and over time may lead to chronic inflammation, which has been linked to heart disease, arthritis, and other conditions.
8. Pick Mushrooms
Mushrooms stimulated the immune system enough to ward off infections and tumors in preliminary animal studies. But you don't have to shell out big bucks for exotic shrooms. Inexpensive white button mushrooms, which are high in antioxidants, provided a better immunity boost than pricier varieties, such as shiitake and oyster mushrooms, in research from Pennsylvania State University in University Park and Arizona State University in Mesa.
Boost the benefits: Add mushrooms to your diet; use them in salads, with scrambled eggs, on sandwiches and as a meat substitute. Consuming mushrooms daily cut women's breast cancer risk by 52 percent in a study published in the International Journal of Cancer. "Antioxidants can help lower risk factors for cancer," Lambert says.
9. Cook at Home
People who live to 100 and beyond eat at home more than in restaurants throughout their lives and often enjoy cooking, according to Lynn Peters Adler, author of Centenarians: The Bonus Years and founder of the National Centenarian Awareness Project, an advocacy group for Americans 100 and older. "The same food in restaurants will generally be higher in fat, salt, and sugar, plus it's often served in large portions," Somer says. "We also tend to throw caution to the wind when eating out, ordering junk we'd never eat at home."
Boost the benefits: Serve seafood twice a week: The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon, tuna, herring, and mackerel have been found to protect against heart disease and may slash your odds of developing dementia. Try Lambert's technique for a flavorful fillet: Heat one tablespoon of olive oil and two teaspoons of cumin seeds over medium-high heat until the seeds are fragrant, about 30 seconds. Place two diced ripe tomatoes in the bottom of a baking dish. Put a fish fillet on top, pour the cumin-infused oil over it and roast in the oven at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. Garnish with cilantro.
10. Put the Brakes on Yo-Yo Dieting
Packing on a few pounds and then losing them for your high school reunion or a friend's wedding may not seem like a big deal, but frequent fluctuations are tough on your ticker. "Even a small loss and gain can raise blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease," Dr. Flanigan says. It may also up your cancer risk. In a Swedish study of more than 140,000 women published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, those who had lost and gained more than 10 pounds on more than 10 occasions were two and a half times more likely to develop the most common type of kidney cancer than those whose weight hadn't yo-yoed.
Boost the benefits: Be especially careful on weekends; the Friday-to-Sunday danger zone may play a key role in the scale's ups and downs, research suggests. The average American adult consumes 115 calories more a day on weekends and may not even realize it, according to one study in Obesity Research. That may not sound like much, but it adds up to about five pounds a year. Try to stick to your routine as much as possible: Instead of indulging in a huge brunch, have your usual healthy breakfast. Also, plan ahead to avoid weekend pitfalls: Bring nuts or fruit when you're running errands, and have a nutritious snack, such as apple slices with peanut butter, before you go out to dinner so you don't inhale the bread basket.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2011.