The longevity diet is a doozy. Can it help lengthen lifespan? Yes – just not Methuselah-long, of course. Still good, in spite of its modernized flaws.
ARE YOU, LIKE ME, A SENIOR WHO’S INTERESTED IN STAYING HEALTHY FOR YEARS TO COME? IF SO, YOU MIGHT LIKE TO SEE WHAT A SCIENTIST (ME) HAS TO SAY ABOUT HOW TO ACHIEVE IT AT NO EXTRA COST TO YOU, WITHOUT EVEN HAVING TO LEAVE HOME, STARTING HERE: HEALTHY AGING NATURALLY.
Now back to the topic of this post…
Ah, diets. Unless you’re a breatharian, you’ve got to eat something.
If you’re concerned about your health, the challenge is eating foods that are good for your whole body, not just pleasure for your taste buds.
That’s the rub.
Dietary advice and diet books are all over the map for what you’re supposed to eat for good health.
And yet one of the best strategies throughout human history is almost always missing from diet books. Too bad, too, because it’s so simple. (I’ll tell you what it is and how to capitalize on it at the end of this post.)
The same goes for multiple versions of ‘the longevity diet’.
Some of the advice is fine: Eat whole foods. Avoid refined carbs, especially sugar and that godawful high-fructose corn syrup. Nix the junk food, etc., etc. All good.
Some of it is awful: ‘Eat low-fat’ is horrible advice. Eat less meat, especially red meat (which has become dogma of epic proportions) is simple-minded. Go plant-based (guaranteed to be nutrition-deficient). None of these recommendations will help you get and stay healthy long-term.
Conceptually, the best advice is to follow an ancestral diet. Unfortunately, what that means is vague. And our foods these days are nothing like they were before the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.
In modern times the closest we might get to eating like our Paleolithic ancestors might be the Paleo Diet. However, even that approach has some gaps. (See, for example: Will the Real Paleo Diet Please Stand Up?)
One of the biggest issues about healthy diets is their complete failure to account for other lifestyle choices that are more important for health and longevity than your food choices.
Diets aren’t even in the Top 5.
For example, foods don’t matter one whit if you ignore THE #1 BEST ALL TIME SOURCE OF HEALTH EVER: Health Benefits of Sunlight vs. Medical Dogma.
Nevertheless, foods do have a role in longevity, however minor. Which leads us to competing versions of ‘the’ longevity diet.
Digging into this topic makes for a wild ride into the labyrinthine and often conflicting recommendations that typify the entire “diet” industry.
As you’ll see, some of the newest recommendations aren’t new at all. And some of the best come from a book published way back in 1939!
It seems as though the old phrase, “there’s nothing new under the sun,” was created just for the longevity diet.
So let’s take a peek down some of those rabbit holes and see what we can find.
The Longevity Diet Choices
How does the longevity diet vary? How many diets are called ‘the’ longevity diet? Is one version better than the others?
Getting straight answers to those questions can be a challenge. One seemingly logical place to start would be to examine the diets of centenarians in long-lived cultures in the ‘blue zones‘ of healthy lifespans.
Don’t be surprised, though. Diets among those cultures vary quite a lot, depending on where people live. My earlier post here summarizes several of them: How To Choose A Truly Healthy Diet – Really!
If you’re starting to think ‘the’ longevity diet is a mish-mash of factors – e.g., zip code, genetic code, food choices – then, well … you’re catching on.
And unless you’re willing to move to Okinawa, Japan, or to Icarus, Greece, or become a GMO organism yourself, your best bet is making good food choices.
The question is, what are they?
So strap in …
Blue Zone-ish Diets
Depending on which culture you want to emulate, you could live long and thrive on any of the following selected examples:
- The Gaelics in the Outer and Inner Hebrides: Rich in oat products (porridge and oat cakes at nearly every meal), ample seafood (mainly fish, lobsters, crabs, oysters, and clams), various vegetables (fresh in summer, stored in the winter). Including this tasty delight: Cod’s head stuffed with oatmeal and chopped cod livers. (Stuffed cod’s head – sounds tasty, doesn’t it?)
- The Eskimos (Inuit) of Alaska: Liberal amounts of seafood – especially high in organ meats from various sea animals, plus fish, seal oil, seal meat, whale meat, and fish eggs. Also caribou. Plant foods were sparse. When available, they included summertime cranberries kelp, sea grasses, bulbs, ground nuts and flower blossoms preserved in seal oil. Some plant foods were saved for winter. Liberal amounts of seafood – especially high in organ meats from various sea animals, plus fish, seal oil, seal meat, whale meat, and fish eggs. Also caribou. (Sounds great – although maybe not enough to put up with miserable winters.)
- The Melanesians and Polynesians on South Pacific Archipelagos: Rich in shellfish and finfish, plenty of tubers and tropical fruits, with a staple of starchy taro roots (actually, corms), plus tender taro leaves.
- The Indians of the Andean Highlands: An abundance of potatoes, llama meat, and guinea pigs. Also dried fish eggs and kelp. (High-elevation villages in Peru raise guinea pigs as a source of high-protein food – just don’t tell that to any kid who has a pet guinea pig.)
- The Tribes of Eastern and Central Africa: Sweet potatoes, beans, corn, millet; meat and dairy from domesticated goats and cattle; and a variety of insects (especially ants and locusts). (Bugs! Yummy!)
SIDENOTE: Two additional, supposedly healthy diets, associated with ‘blue zones’ that you may have heard of are the Mediterranean Diet and the 7th Day Adventist Diet. The popularized version of the Mediterranean Diet is basically a crock. I’ll have to explain that in a separate post dedicated to why I believe so. The 7th Day Adventist Diet in Loma Linda, California, is mostly plant-based (vegan or vegetarian with limited amounts of low-fat animal products). I don’t advocate it for several reasons. I’ll explain some of them later when I talk about plant-based diets. (Taboos on caffeine and alcohol have nothing to do with it – honest!)
The Feds Weigh In – Of Course
Lest you think your government hasn’t got your back, think again. You can see a lengthy set of federal recommendations behind the ONLY factor of importance for measuring lifespan on ‘the longevity diet’, which is all-cause mortality. No lab test or physical exam can measure it.
Lifespan is it.
Simply put, if anything raises all-cause mortality, it shortens lifespan. On the other hand, anything that lowers all-cause mortality lengthens lifespan.
Toward that end, in 2020 the USDA provided a 280-page report ‘summarizing’ how the feds look at diet and longevity. You can can download it at no charge here: Dietary Patterns and All-Cause Mortality.
If you decide to dig into it, keep in mind these are the same folks who foisted that horrible food pyramid on us back in the 1970s. You know, the one whereby eating according to it would make you look like a pyramid.
And the ‘upgrade’ – ChooseMyPlate – was only slightly better. (It got a lot of initial traction when then First Lady Michelle Obama endorsed it.)
A quick summary of recommendations includes the following statements:
Strong evidence demonstrates that dietary patterns in adults and older adults characterized by vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, whole grains, unsaturated vegetable oils, and fish, lean meat or poultry when meat was included, are associated with decreased risk of all-cause mortality. These patterns were also relatively low in red and processed meat, high-fat dairy, and refined carbohydrates or sweets. Some of these dietary patterns also included alcoholic beverages in moderation.
This is more or less a Dr. Oz-ish diet. At first glance it seems like a good approach. (Keep in mind that, as a health guru, Dr. is a good cardiothoracic surgeon.)
I’ll be pointing out some flaws in those overall food recommendations a little later.
The USDA report also had a bit of a surprise with this comment:
Insufficient evidence was available to determine the relationship between diets based on macronutrient distribution and all-cause mortality.
In other words, the ongoing controversy about proportions of carbs vs. fats vs. protein is a moot point.
That should put all those low-carb/high-carb, low-fat/high-fat, low-protein/high-protein gurus in a tizzy.
However, neither the feds nor the diet gurus have a clue about how food metabolism changes with seasons and latitudes. Without going into details, I’ll just say explaining why would involve a deep dive into the quantum physics of food electrons.
Since that’s a pretty scary topic, just consider these two extremes: 1) high-carb eating is just fine on the equator, where it’s basically summer all year round; and, 2) high-fat eating best serves folks in mid-winter above about 50 degrees north latitude.
It all means the feds are right – i.e., by itself, generalizing macronutrient proportions says nothing about health or longevity.
The Latest Version – Nothing New Here, Folks
The most recent version comes from a book on eating right for a healthy lifespan: The Longevity Diet: Slow Aging, Fight Disease, Optimize Weight (2019). The author, Dr. Valter Longo has the right chops for it, too – Professor at the University of Southern California and Director of the Longevity Institute at USC.
Prof. Longo clearly knows a thing or two about longevity. So let’s take a look at what he’s got to say and where I think his views could use some upgrading.
I’ll start with this overview on Dr. Longo’s personal website, the Longevity Diet for Adults. (It varies a bit for children and adolescents and for pregnant or breastfeeding women.)
Summary of the key points, with a bit of my commentary in bold:
- Eat mostly vegan, plus a little fish, limiting meals with fish to a maximum of two or three per week. Choose fish, crustaceans, and mollusks with a high omega-3, omega-6, and vitamin B12 content (salmon, anchovies, sardines, cod, sea bream, trout, clams, shrimp). Pay attention to the quality of the fish, choosing those with low levels of mercury.
The human GI tract isn’t very well built for digesting lots of plant material. It’s too short. The common go-to filler for vegan eating – pasta – is a poor food choice in many ways. Eating a ‘little fish’ 2-3 times a week is inadequate. [More on that later.] Mercury isn’t a problem since it’s packaged in less toxic forms in whole foods. In addition, the key mineral for detoxifying mercury, selenium, is plentiful in seafood.
- If you are below the age of 65, keep protein intake low (0.31 to 0.36 grams per pound of body weight). That comes to 40 to 47 grams of proteins per day for a person weighing 130 pounds, and 60 to 70 grams of protein per day for someone weighing 200 to 220 pounds. Over age 65, you should slightly increase protein intake but also increase consumption of fish, eggs, white meat, and products derived from goats and sheep to preserve muscle mass. Consume beans, chickpeas, green peas, and other legumes as your main source of protein.
It’s difficult to overdo protein intake unless you’re on an all-meat diet. The suggested numbers here emphasize the importance of regularly eating protein-rich foods. Fish, eggs, and meat are good choices. White meat is not better than red meat. Legumes (beans, chickpeas, green peas, etc.) contain lectins and phytic acid, which are anti-nutrients. Even the Paleo diet looks askance at legumes.
- Minimize saturated fats from animal and vegetable sources (meat, cheese) and sugar, and maximize good fats and complex carbs. Eat whole grains and high quantities of vegetables (tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, legumes, etc.) with generous amounts of olive oil (3 tablespoons per day) and nuts (1 ounce per day).
Good fats are good fats, whether they’re saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated. Hype about the dangers of saturated fats is misleading. ‘Minimizing’ saturated fats ignores how we metabolize different types. (E.g., those from coconut oil vs. those from lard.) Avoiding sugar is always good advice. Complex carbs can be many things. Some feed you, and others feed your gut bacteria. Whole grains are overrated, especially cereal grains. (Gluten from modern dwarf wheat is only part of the story.) Cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil is the best – if you can get good quality from an industry that’s been taken over by the Mafia. (California sources are more reliable than imports.) Most nuts should be fine if they’re uncooked. (By the way, peanuts are NOT nuts – they’re legumes.)
- Follow a diet with high vitamin and mineral content, supplemented with a multivitamin buffer every three days.
This is a no-brainer. The challenge is to select nutrition-rich foods. Taking a ‘multivitamin buffer’, whatever that is, every three days makes little sense. You may need supplements every day.
- Select ingredients among those discussed in this book that your ancestors would have eaten.
You may be able to do this IF you consume only undomesticated animals and heirloom plants. There’s very little modern food on the market resembling anything our ancestors would have eaten.
- Based on your weight, age, and abdominal circumference, decide whether to have two or three meals per day. If you are overweight or tend to gain weight easily, consume two meals a day: breakfast and either lunch or dinner, plus two low-sugar (less than 5 grams) snacks with fewer than 100 calories each. If you are already at a normal weight, or if you tend to lose weight easily or are over 65 and of normal weight, eat three meals a day and one low-sugar (less than 3 to 5 grams) snack with fewer than 100 calories.
The concept of eating three meals a day is a modern one. One of the main bugaboos for longevity is undermining your ancient autophagy system (aka, cellular garbage removal) by eating too often. Snacking makes it worse. And selecting foods based on their caloric value is so simple-minded that it’s ridiculous. Calories are measure of heat, which we don’t metabolize.
- Confine all eating to within a twelve-hour period; for example, start after 8 a.m. and end before 8 p.m. Don’t eat anything within three to four hours of bedtime.
Highly recommended concept. If anything, I’d shrink the eating window to around 8 hours, thus giving you an overnight fasting period closer to 16 hours. Never, ever, EVER eat just before bedtime.
Following those recommendations is supposed to be good for your health. The assumption is that doing so will increase your lifespan.
That’s a big assumption.
Nevertheless, it also reflects much of the USDA report on diet and all-cause mortality cited above.
How About ‘Ancestral’ Diets and Longevity?
Hoo-boy! Evaluating ancestral lifespans is a big can of worms. The supposed average lifespan of pre-agricultural ancients was 20-35 years. That number stays pretty consistent as recently as the 18th century.
For more recent calculations, researchers can evaluate lifespan data from pretty good records going back a couple of centuries. Still, factoring in huge mitigating influences such as disease prevalence and infant mortality can be challenging for accuracy.
Data on ancient cultures are even harder to come by. We just don’t have access to full obituaries going back millenia. There’s no Neanderthal Gazette or Cro-Magnon Daily for extracting numbers on ancient lifespans.
However, we can look at diets of indigenous cultures to see what people ate before adopting agriculture. From there it’s a leap of faith that such diets were good for health and longevity.
With all those caveats, what kind of diets are we talking about?
What Did They Eat?
The most comprehensive survey I know of indigenous diets was published by Dr. Weston A. Price in the early 20th century. His 1939 publication is still available online in pdf format (and it’s fascinating reading – highly recommended!) here: Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diets and Their Effects.
A HEADS UP: The pdf file is pretty big – ca. 5.7 MB for the 445-page book.
If you’re more old-fashioned, like me, you may prefer a hard copy. Amazon, bless their pea-pickin’ hearts, offers one here. If you want to buy a used copy, they start at around $18 (new is just under $28).
The food selections from these old-time cultures might make your mouth water (they certainly do for me!).
The basic list recommendations from Price’s report are:
- Eat beef, lamb, game, organ meats, poultry and eggs from pasture-fed animals.
- Eat wild fish (not farm-raised), fish eggs and shellfish from unpolluted waters.
- Eat full-fat milk products from pasture-fed cows, preferably raw and/or fermented, such as raw milk, whole yogurt, kefir, cultured butter, full-fat raw cheeses and fresh and sour cream.
- Use animal fats, such as lard, tallow, egg yolks, cream and butter liberally.
- Use only traditional vegetable oils – extra virgin olive oil, expeller-expressed sesame oil, small amounts of expeller-expressed flax oil, and the tropical oils—coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil.
- Eat fresh fruits and vegetables, preferably organic. Use vegetables in salads and soups, or lightly steamed with butter.
- Use whole grains, legumes and nuts that have been prepared by soaking, sprouting or sour leavening to neutralize phytic acid, enzyme inhibitors and other anti-nutrients.
- Include enzyme-rich lacto-fermented vegetables, fruits, beverages and condiments in your diet on a regular basis.
- Prepare homemade stocks from the bones of pastured chicken, beef and lamb fed non-GMO feed, and wild fish, and use liberally in soups, stews, gravies and sauces.
- Use filtered water for cooking and drinking.
- Use unrefined salt and a variety of herbs and spices for food interest and appetite stimulation.
- Make your own salad dressing using raw vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and a small amount of expeller-expressed flax oil.
- Use traditional sweeteners in moderation, such as raw honey, maple syrup, maple sugar, date sugar, dehydrated cane sugar juice and stevia.
- Use only unpasteurized wine or beer in strict moderation with meals.
I’m sure your sharp eyes noticed some things that Price couldn’t have said in his book. They’re modern updates at the Weston A. Price Foundation here.
For example, filtered water wasn’t a thing back then. Neither was stevia, except in the Amazon Forest where it’s a native plant.
Ditto for non-GMO anything.
Oh, and good luck finding anything that’s unpasteurized these days. (As far as I know, sale of unpasteurized dairy is banned at the federal level.)
Or you could have your own dairy animals. And as for beer and wine … well, making your own isn’t too difficult.
A few key points about the list include:
- Organ meats. The greatest source of nutrition from meats is in the organs. If you’re thinking steaks inter alia (steaks, ribs, loins, chops, roasts, etc.), think again. Skeletal muscle tissue is the least nutritious part of an animal. Some of the cultures Price surveyed let the folks lowest in tribal status have those tissues. These days, that’s pretty much what we get in supermarkets. Liver is the most common organ meat you can find. You have to hunt for other organs – pancreas, heart, tongue, etc. [Brain is out, driven by fear of mad cow disease.] The most nutritious ‘organ’ meat would be eyeballs – I’m not kidding! (Good luck finding those at your local Safeway.)
- Fish. Human brains are relatively huge for our body size. And they run on cellular ‘batteries’ made from a membrane-spanning fatty acid called DHA. The most common dietary sources are oily fish. (Unless you can eat like a whale and filter-feed on dietary krill or phytoplankton.) Eating fish once or twice a week is inadequate. So are fish oil supplements (See: Fish Oils – Industry BS Just Plain Fishy). Worries about too much mercury from seafood are unfounded, for two reasons: 1) mercury is ‘packaged’ in less toxic forms; and, 2) seafood also provides selenium, which helps to detoxify mercury. And the best sources of seafood-based DHA? Eyeballs and fish eggs – again, not kidding!
- Fresh fruits and vegetables. Local, indigenous-style eating was seasonal and latitudinal. Your style should be, too. You’re adapted to what and when foods grow where you live. They change with seasons and with latitude. Eating bananas at the equator is okay any time of the year. Doing so in New York in January is a no-no. In fact, if you live north of about 50-degrees latitude, your best eating style would be closer to old-time Inuit diets – i.e., all animal-based and nearly no plants. Whale blubber and reindeer organs anyone?
- ‘Traditional’ vegetable oils. Which oils were consumed depended on location. Tropical oils in the tropics. Olive oil in the temperate Mediterranean, etc. Modernizing this component of diet means choosing wisely among commercial oils, not all of which are good for you. In fact, most aren’t. See, for example: Seed Oils – The Good vs. The Bad.
- Pre-treat grains, legumes, and nuts. It would be easiest to just avoid them. However, if you must have them, pre-treatments can diminish the effects of their anti-nutrients.
- Lacto-fermented foods. This is one of the best all-time components of healthy eating. And they’re super easy to make. (See, for example: How to Ferment Vegetables in Three Easy Steps. The let Mother Nature do her work. By the way, if you’re in the supermarket looking for fermented foods, make sure they still contain live cultures. If they’re in the refrigerated section, they probably are. The food label should say so. Avoid crap like unrefrigerated sauerkraut.
- Make your own salad dressing. Food labels on salad dressings represent a food chemist’s dream world. Unfortunately, they can contain a litany of junk you should never put in your body. Good ingredients such as raw vinegar and extra virgin olive oil are easy to come by. And if you’re in the mood for mayonnaise, all you have to do is combine them with egg yolks for a great DIY recipe (Here’s how: How to Make Homemade Mayonnaise.
There You Have It
Any of the longevity diets presented here should be good for you, especially if you keep in mind those objections to parts of some of them I outlined earlier.
Now, whether they actually improve your lifespan and keep you healthy throughout your life depends on a whole host of other factors.
That may explain why, as a fitness exercise, this field is rife with scientists jumping to conclusions. Then arguing about them for years to come.
Nevertheless, healthy eating is most likely going to be more closely associated with longevity than unhealthy eating.
How About That Missing Factor?
It’s simply fasting.
Specifically, these days it’s more commonly referred to as Intermittent Fasting (IF).
We’re well-adapted to it. Indeed, nearly every aspect of health and longevity depends on proper fasting.
Why we need it is in our DNA.
I’ve posted a detailed explanation about it, how and why you can and should do it, and what you can expect from it here: Health Problems Reversed by Intermittent Fasting.
The two most important, fundamental comments from that post are:
you will be healthier and live longer.
If you eat too often, you will suffer from an increasing number
of DOCs [Diseases of Civilization] all the way to the end of your shortened life.
Among other things, this is why simply eating according to the so-called Mediterranean Diet is such a crock. What’s missing from it is the observation that people living in the model culture for that diet observe religious fasting for as many as 185 days a year.
Who wants to skip eating every other day of the year? No wonder the diet fails to mention that crucial bit of information.
By the way, as I wrote in that post on IFing, fasting once or twice a week will do wonders.
No fuss, no muss, no dirty knives.
Comments or Questions?
I’d love to hear from you. This and every other post here provides a comment section at the end of the post, exactly for that purpose.
So, by all means, leave me your thoughts.
I would be especially grateful if you point out any flaws in my logic, factual errors, or ordinary typos. (I’ll give you a little ‘huzzah’ in my heart.)
Then I’ll respond as soon as I can.
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All the best in natural health,
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