What is the best diet for longevity?

As diet makes up a few of the Power 9 learned from Blue Zones, Buettner has also launched the Blue Zone Food Guidelines that feature 11 recommendations reflecting how the world’s longest-living people ate for most of their lives.

“If you want to know what a centenarian [did to live] to be 100, you have to know what they ate during their whole [life],” he said. “Working with Harvard for my book The Blue Zones Kitchen, we collected 155 dietary studies done in all Blue Zones over the past 80 years and averaged them.”

“It was clear that over 90% of their traditional dietary intake came from whole food, plant-based sources [and] was about 65% complex carbs,” noted Buettner. “The pillars of every longevity diet in the world are whole grainsnutsgreens, and other garden vegetablestubersTrusted Source, and beans.”

Dr. Valter Longo, Edna M. Jones Chair in Gerontology and professor of gerontology and biological sciences at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, developed the Longevity DietTrusted Source after years of research into aging, nutrition, and disease.

“The Longevity Diet, based on [the] five pillars of longevity, entails all of the everyday and periodic dietary habits that are associated with increased longevity and healthspan,” he explained to MNT.

The main facets of the Longevity Diet include:

  • eating a low-protein pescatarian diet until the age of 65–70 years, followed by moderate proteins later in life
  • fasting for 12 hours every night
  • doing, on average, three cycles of a fasting-mimicking diet per year, each lasting 5 days.

“Because diet [is] intended as ‘how and what we eat’ and not as a method to lose weight, [it] can regulate the genes that regulate the aging process, but also those that regulate the removal of damaged components of cells and the regeneration of parts of various tissues and organs,” Dr. Longo added.

Additionally, previous research suggests that the Mediterranean diet can also provide benefits when it comes to longevity.

A review published in January 2020 concluded that the Mediterranean diet helps slow downTrusted Source the progression of aging and the onset of frailtyTrusted Source in older age.

And research published in March 2021 says adhering to the Mediterranean diet may add yearsTrusted Source to a person’s life.

Why is diet so important for longevity?

According to Monique Richard, a registered dietitian nutritionist, owner of Nutrition-In-Sight in Johnson City, TN, and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, when it comes to eating for longevity, diets like the Blue Zone Diet, Longevity Diet, and Mediterranean diet stand out because of the lifestyle components they share.

“Examples of commonalities observed within these populations include more families and individuals growingTrusted Source and consuming their food [and] eating more whole foods, as in closest to what Mother Nature has made versus derived from a manufacturing plant, industrial farm, or fast food chain,” she explained to MNT.

“Overall intake and composition of these diets include less highly-processed foods, therefore often automatically decreasing levels of sodium, artificial flavors, colorings, and preservatives, fats or added sugar.” Richard noted.

“These dietary patterns often include foods lower in saturated fatscholesterol, and calories, including more foods that are richer in nutrients such as fiberantioxidants like vitamin CEA, [and] B, and higher in minerals such as potassiummagnesium, and iodine.”

– Monique Richard

How to change dietary habits to improve quality of life

When looking to make diet changes to increase longevity, Richard said it is not just about extending life, but also about increasing its quality.

She suggested:

  • take inventory of what food you have on hand and what should be added or subtracted
  • reassess your sugary beverageTrusted Source intake
  • examine how much animal-derived meats and other foods you are eating and consider alternatives
  • cook more at home
  • take the time to shop for groceries rather than using a delivery system
  • plant herbs in pots or cartons on a window sill or small deck if you do not have a garden space to cultivate them
  • shop at the farmer’s market
  • experiment with “new to you” foods
  • brighten up dishes with herbs and spices
  • add more greens, beans, lentils, and vegetables into your daily diet
  • take time to celebrate food.

“The emphasis is not on restriction or negative consequences, but leaning into true quality, consistency, and overall health with a pillar of foundational pure, wholesome factors,” Richard said.

“Don’t forget to slow down with eating, with chewing, with making or creating a meal, with making time to stop and smell the flowers, [and] with making long-lasting meaningful changes,” she added.

Can positive thinking promote longevity?

The “power of positive thinking” is known to be beneficial to a person’s overall mental health. However, previous research shows that a positive attitude may even help a person live longer.

A study published in August 2019 found that being optimistic was associated with a person living 11-15% longer and having a stronger likelihood of living to age 85 or older.

Research published in October 2022 suggested that positive-thinking women in an ethnically diverse United States population lived an average of 4.4 years moreTrusted Source than those who did not think positively.

“Having a positive, optimistic outlook reduces our risk for developing chronic diseases and gives us a greater chance of living past 85,” Dr. Karen D. Sullivan, a board-certified neuropsychologist and owner of I CARE FOR YOUR BRAIN in Pinehurst, NC explained to MNT.

“The mechanism behind these benefits is thought to be related to the protection optimism offers against the inflammatory damage of stress. Studies on negative emotions show a weakening effectTrusted Source on the immune system.”

– Dr. Karen D. Sullivan

Additionally, Dr. Karen Miller, a neuropsychologist, geropsychologist, and senior director of the Brain Wellness and Lifestyle Programs at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA, noted that inflammation caused by stress is one of the culprits leading to more rapid aging, more physical difficulties, and more cognitive difficultiesTrusted Source.

“So when we’re thinking positive and engaging in positive behaviors, such as […] meditationyoga, participating in our own personal religious practicesTrusted Source, getting out and walkingexercising, [or] enjoying the fresh airTrusted Source, all those things are bringing down our stress and bringing down our level of inflammation,” she continued.

“If we’re under a lot of stress we’re going to have higher inflammation and higher inflammation actually can cause cellular damage to our bodies, particularly our brains,” Dr. Miller noted.

How can being socially active promote longevity?

In addition to staying positive and participating in activities that help lower stress, remaining socially active and connected to other humans has also been associated with living a long life.

A study published in September 2019 found women who had strong social relationships had a 10% longer life spanTrusted Source and 41% better chance of living to age 85.

And research published in May 2023 showed that frequent participation in social activity was significantly associated with prolonged overall survivalTrusted Source in older adults.

“We are social beings with a social brain — we are wired to be part of a group with needs for both contributing value and being valued,” Dr. Sullivan explained.

“People who identify as lonelyTrusted Source have a […] greater risk of dying early than those who feel satisfied with their social life. The chronic stress of loneliness weakens our immune systems, making us more susceptible to infectious diseasesTrusted Source and chronic diseasesTrusted Source, especially cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

– Dr. Karen D. Sullivan

When actively socializing, Dr. Miller said, we are engaging in cognitive stimulation that helps keep the brain engaged and healthy.

“When we are involved with another person, there is that volley, that give and take,” she told MNT. “It’s like a tennis match — the ideas are going back and forth. And that type of cognitive stimulation actually inspires our brains to be more mentally agile, or like what we like to think of in neuropsychology as cognitive flexibilityTrusted Source.”

Plus, conversing and engaging with others helps you learn more information, think creatively, and stimulate problem-solving skills, resulting in what Dr. Miller referred to as a “whole-brain workout.”

“That type of engagement, that social stimulation, is what I would call nature’s brain bootcamp,” she added. “We’re literally engaging in bootcamp for our brain where we’re socializing, which is very different than if I was isolated and I didn’t have that opportunity.”

Do exercise and weight impact longevity?

While experts agree a healthy diet, limiting stress, thinking positively, and staying socially active can potentially lead to a longer life, there are some other healthy habits that are also important.

For example, smoking can take years off your life. A study published in June 2020 found that not smoking and being socially engaged throughout older age were common in centenarians free from common chronic diseases.

Keeping a healthy weight is also important for longevity. Research published in 2017 concluded that a high body mass index (BMI) was associated with substantially shorterTrusted Source healthy and chronic disease-free life expectancy.

Regular exercise can also help you live longer. A study published in August 2022 found that light or moderate to vigorous physical activity were both associated with a lower risk of mortality in older women, while higher sedentary timeTrusted Source increased their mortality risk.

“Several studies have shown that physical activity is associated with lower risk of mortality in older adults,” Dr. Aladdin Shadyab, associate professor of epidemiology at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health & Human Longevity Science at UC San Diego, and senior author of the study told MNT.

“We were the first to show that higher levels of physical activity and lower time spent sedentary are associated with reduced risk of mortality, irrespective of having genes that predispose to a long life. These findings overall highlight the importance of maintaining a physically active lifestyle in old age to achieve longevity,” said Dr. Shadyab.

“I think maintaining a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise is most important, particularly for older adults,” he added. “Even light activities, such as walking, are important for maintaining a long and healthy life in the aging population.”