The fountain of youth has yet to be found, bottled, and sold for $3.99 at Whole Foods. But that doesn't mean the secret to living a long, healthy life can't be bought at the supermarket.
"By eating right, you maximize the probability that you won't develop conditions like diabetes or Alzheimer's," says James Joseph, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
Beyond choosing the best foods, new and intriguing evidence shows that eating less — less than you probably think — can reduce the toll time takes on your body.
Follow the following 7 no-fail food rules and you'll have the best possible chance of blowing out 100 candles on your birthday cake.
RULE 1: Go For Color
The biggest anti-aging breakthrough in recent history comes from new discoveries about the power of antioxidants. As the cells in our bodies metabolize oxygen, unstable molecules called free radicals form. These cause cell damage that has been linked to age-related illnesses like Alzheimer's and heart disease. Many scientists think that all symptoms of aging are the direct result of free radicals attacking our cells.
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, preventing them from doing any damage — and thereby slowing the aging process.
"Antioxidants can even reverse damage to our cells," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. While there's ongoing debate about how many of the large variety of food-derived antioxidants our bodies can actually use and how efficiently we can use them, a convincing pile of research points to a strong connection between foods loaded with antioxidants and a longer, healthier life.
Berries have tons of antioxidants, and according to Dr. Joseph's research, they help maintain cognitive and motor functioning as we age. Pomegranates have been found to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
And results recently published in the British Journal of Cancer show that broccoli and brussels sprouts contain compounds that help prevent breast cancer.
RULE 2: Rely On Real Food, Not Supplements
Case in point: the massive Iowa Women's Health Study. Researchers found that among the 34,492 women participating in the study, those who ate foods rich in vitamin E, such as nuts, lessened their chances of suffering a stroke. Vitamin E supplements, on the other hand, provided no protection.
Natural foods contain "thousands of compounds that interact in complex ways, and if you take one out, there's no predicting how it will function on its own," said Frank Hu, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. He pointed out that large-scale trials of individual antioxidant supplements have been largely disappointing.
RULE 3: Avoid Processed Foods
Processed foods — those full of preservatives, chemicals, and added colors — simply aren't as nutritious. And every time you eat a highly processed food, you're bypassing another food that actually can help delay the effects of aging.
The classic example is whole-wheat bread versus white bread. Whole wheat is proven to fight heart disease, thanks to its abundance of fiber and other nutrients. White bread isn't. "Many nutrients are taken out during processing, and few are put back," says Lisa Hark, Ph.D., R.D., director of nutrition education at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Your body also typically digests whole food more slowly than processed food, which keeps blood sugar and insulin levels from fluctuating rapidly. "In the long term, this may help you avoid diabetes," Dr. Hu said. And because whole foods pack fewer calories per gram, they ward off weight-related illnesses like heart disease and stroke.
RULE 4: Don't Be Afraid Of (Good) Fats
Fat is not a four-letter word. "Unsaturated fats from vegetable oils, nuts, avocados, and fish improve insulin sensitivity and reduce blood lipids," Dr. Hu says. That translates into lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
Healthy fats help make the Mediterranean-style diet — consisting mostly of vegetables, nuts, beans, olive oil, and fish — so superior. The Harvard School of Public Health and University of Athens Medical School found that this type of diet reduces the risk of death from heart disease and cancer by 25 percent. And a recent Columbia University Medical Center study reported that it can lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease by 40 percent.
Treating yourself to salmon and other fish that deliver omega-3 fatty acids two to four times a week, along with a small handful of nuts a day, may reduce your risk of heart disease by 30 percent and lower your cholesterol as well, according to research from Harvard.
Your looks will benefit too: Early evidence suggests that omega-3s will have your grandkids crooning, "Grandma, what soft, wrinkle-free skin you have!"
RULE 5: Sip Red Wine
Another revelation of the Harvard/Athens study was the benefits of red wine. Drinking one glass a day, four to five times a week (preferably with a meal), has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks, diabetes, and other life-threatening illnesses. Part of the credit goes to the alcohol, which helps soothe inflamed arteries. But specific to red wine — especially pinot noir — are antioxidants called flavonoids which are particularly good free-radical fighters.
Consuming wine conservatively (pace yourselves, people) will help you reap all the heart-healthy benefits, but you should go easier on the bottle as you age: Alcohol consumption has been linked to increased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
RULE 6: Guzzle Green Tea
Packed with powerful antioxidants — this time called catechins — green tea may be the single most life-prolonging substance you can put in your cup. A mug a day will decrease your chance of developing high blood pressure by 46 percent. (A good thing, since 35 million women are currently hypertensive.) Drink more and reduce your risk by 65 percent.
Enough studies have shown green tea's ability to inhibit the growth of cancer cells that the National Cancer Institute is conducting trials on both a tea-based pill and a topical ointment to treat cancerous skin growths.
RULE 7: Eat Less
Want proof that staying slim is linked to a longer, more enjoyable life? Just look around: The 90-somethings running after their grandkids on the beach or dancing at weddings aren't the overweight ones.
Science backs this up. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that women who stayed closest to their weight at 18 — yes, 18 — throughout their lives had a 66 percent lower risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and gallstones compared with women who put on 11 to 22 pounds by middle age. Another study found that women who gained 60 pounds after age 18 were up to three times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Of course, as we age, extra pounds seem to materialize out of nowhere. "If you keep the physical activity the same and food the same, you will put on a pound or two a year," says Walter Willett, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the lead researchers of the study. Thanks to a natural decrease in hormones that help maintain muscle mass, "those muscles shrink, you burn less energy, and you accumulate fat," he says. There's a two-part solution. First, start weight training, if you don't already, and keep it up through the years to retain calorie-burning muscles.
And, more important, start cutting calories — while keeping nutrients. In 2004, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis reported that people who consistently ate 10 to 25 percent fewer calories than the average American, while still keeping a balanced diet, had remarkably low blood pressure and low levels of bad cholesterol and triglycerides — too much of which can spell "heart attack." Reduced calorie intake has also been linked to lower risk of cancer and Alzheimer's.
The National Academy of Science has several theories about why eating less makes such a difference. While we often strive to boost our metabolism to stay slim, some researchers believe we need to do the opposite to live longer: A low-cal diet slows your metabolism, and a slow metabolism produces fewer free radicals. When you eat less, you also produce less glucose, which has been linked to cell damage. And low-calorie diets reduce your body's core temperature and its response to insulin, both of which may increase longevity in humans.
Okay. If you start skipping snacks, how many years will you add to your life? Doctors aren't sure — but studies have shown that calorie-restricted rats live 30 percent longer than rats that eat normally.
This rule is the toughest one of all to follow. But if it makes you feel better, Sergei Romashkan, M.D., Ph.D., chief of clinical trials at the National Institute of Aging, says that eating 25 percent less than usual caused very little crankiness in his study subjects. "Our participants were quite happy and full," he says.
Since coming back to Segamat, I have missed my steamed salmon with sliced ginger, garlic and onion. plus a little olive oil and fish sauce because there is no fresh salmon to be found in the local supermarkets. I used to buy fresh salmon from Carrefour, Medan, before coming back for retirement since end of November 2008.
I am now taking 1 - 2 slices of whole wheat bread for my breakfast and I prefer steamed than toasted. I take it with a small piece of cheese and a half-boiled "ayam kampung" egg. My drink is now organic rolled oats added with a teaspoon of honey but without sugar. Occassionally I drink black coffee without sugar with friends when we meet at local kopitiam.
I like banana and papaya. Orange is also my favourite. My fruit juice is a mixed concoction of green apple, green pepper, celery, bitter gourd and English gourd. For a change, then I will juice carrot mixed with tomato.
I am not a regular green tea drinker. I may have to start soon and also begin to sip red wine with meals.
It's good to eat less. As Chinese, we have been told to eat up to 70% full only in order to stay healthy. Well, it's easy said than followed the rule. Anyway, if we choose to eat less meat and less rice but consume more fruits and vegetables, then the chances of over-eating is less.
Health is wealth and wellness is happiness. So my friends, do eat right and eat less.