There is so much conflicting information out there about what you should be eating.
Dietary guidelines and best practices have changed drastically over the years, and it has become very hard to know who to trust.
Therefore I have studied this topic at length over the last several years, poring over books, scientific studies, and learning from the true experts in the field.
This is a very worthy endeavor — according to some reports, nutritional excellence has the power to virtually eliminate your risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as significantly reduce your risk of a variety of cancers.
After extensive research into the ultimate human diet, the science has become very clear on one point:
A whole-food, plant-based diet is best. Every great diet revolves around fruits and vegetables.
The most fundamental and understandable guidelines are set forth in the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate (the official dietary advice from Harvard doctors and medical professors), specifically:
Ensure at least 1/2 of your plate is vegetables and fruit
At least 50% of your food intake should be fruits and vegetables. However, less than 14 percent of Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables every day.
Eating mostly fruits and vegetables is arguably the most important thing you can do for your health and longevity.
According to research from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day has been shown to add an extra 3 years of life expectancy.
But more is even better. Eating at least 7 portions of fruit and veggies a day can lower your risk of premature death by 42%. Going up to 10 servings a day is associated with double-digit percentage decreases in the risks for heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and premature deaths.
Choose organic, seasonal, and local vegetables whenever possible (reference the Dirty Dozen & Clean 15 list when deciding to buy organic or not). Include both cooked and uncooked vegetables, and aim for a variety of colors, from dark green to bright yellow and orange.
Fill your shopping cart with these detoxifying plants: Cilantro, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, radishes, brussels sprouts, turnips, watercress, kohlrabi, rutabaga, arugula, horseradish, maca, rapini, daikon, wasabi, bok choy, artichoke hearts, beets, dandelions, mushrooms, onions, garlic, ginger, and seaweed.
Dark leafy greens are the king of the vegetable kingdom in terms of nutrient-density. White potatoes should be minimized because of their high glycemic index.
Berries top the nutrition chart among fruits, but all kinds of fruit are great. Just make sure to choose whole fruits over fruit juices (which have been stripped of nutrition content).
Make whole grains 1/4 of your plate
Whole grains — including whole wheat, barley, wheat berries, quinoa, oats, brown rice, and whole wheat bread and pasta — are more nutrient-dense and have a milder effect on blood sugar than white bread, white rice, and other refined grains.
When selecting bread, look for 100% whole wheat, sprouted grain, whole grain rye, pumpernickel, and true sourdough bread. Look at the label and make sure the serving size ratio of carbs to fiber is equal to or less than 5-to-1 (for example, if you divided 15 grams of carbs by 3 grams of fiber, that would equal 5 and would be acceptable). I am a fan of the sprouted Ezekiel bread from the Food for Life brand.
Oatmeal is a great breakfast choice to get your day started with whole grains (top it off with ground flax seed, nuts, and mixed berries for even more nutrition).
Make protein 1/4 of your plate
Beans and nuts are great plant-based sources of protein, so it is best to start there. Small amounts of carefully-selected fish, chicken, and meat are also acceptable. Animal protein can play a role in your diet, but as a condiment (2–3 ounces, a few nights per week), not the main course.
When selecting fish, go for wild caught (not farmed) SMASH fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring) over large-mouthed, long-lived fish (shark, swordfish, tuna). And if you eat poultry or meat, make sure to get pastured chicken or grass-fed beef. Eggs should also be from chickens that are pastured, not factory raised.
Stay away from processed meats such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and cold cuts.
Eat healthy plant oils in moderation
Choose healthier oils such as olive, MCT, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, and peanut, and stay away from partially hydrogenated oils which contain unhealthy trans fat.
Include other good fats such as avocados, nuts, and seeds.
Drink water, coffee, green tea, and red wine
Avoid sugary drinks (soda, boxed juices) and limit milk/dairy (1–2 servings per day). Limit wine consumption to no more than 1–2 glasses (5 oz.) per day (max of one glass per day for women, two for men).
If you are following the above guidelines, there will be very little room for unhealthy foods such as salty snacks (chips, crackers) and packaged sweets (cookies, candy bars, cakes).
If you are looking for a cheat sheet grocery list, the best longevity foods are (according to The Blue Zones research of centenarians around the world):
Beans (black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, lentils)
Greens (spinach, kale, chards, beet tops, fennel tops, collards)
Nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, cashews)
Olive Oil (green, extra-virgin is best)
Oats (slow-cook or Irish steel-cut are best)
Fruits (all kinds)
Green or Herbal teas
Turmeric (spice or tea)
Blue Zones area centenarians eat a 95% plant-based diet rich in beans, greens, grains and nuts.
If you base your diet around these foods, you just might make it to 100 as well!
Andrew Merle writes about living well, including good habits for happiness, health, productivity, and success. Subscribe to his email list at andrewmerle.com.