- Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, and Princess Anne attend the annual Braemar Highland Gathering on September 1, 2018 in Braemar, Scotland.
- Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
There’s no cure for death, and no way we know of (yet) to extend human life.
But scientists have discovered many clear, science-backed ways to increase your changes of living to a ripe old age, while staying happy and healthy.
Here are eight of the most surefire ways to live longer and better, according to science.
Regular exercise helps keep your heart healthy.
People who run, walk, and jump around regularly have lower blood pressure, even if they only start to work out in middle age.
One 2018 study of 58 men and women between the ages of 48 and 58 in Texas found that two years of regular workouts five days per week made people more fit, improved heart stiffness, led their bodies to pump blood more efficiently, and reduced their risk of heart failure.
“The ‘sweet spot’ in life to get off the couch and start exercising is in late-middle age, when the heart still has plasticity,” lead study author Benjamin Levine, a cardiologist from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said in a release when that study came out.
Staying fit can also help keep your brain strong.
- Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock
In addition to keeping hearts in shape, many studies also suggest that regular movement is a great way to keep our brains sharp and help ward off cognitive decline.
Scientists think the fact that exercisers get more blood pumping to their brains when they work out might have something to do with this benefit.
In addition to cardio, incorporate some lifting into your routine.
- REUTERS/Yuya Shino
Muscle training isn’t just about looking good in a tank top.
Studies suggest it can help keep you alive.
A comprehensive review of 23 scientific studies conducted in 2015 suggests that people who develop strong muscles are less likely to die for all kinds of reasons. The finding held true for everyone from cancer patients to people with heart disease, regardless of other factors like how fat or fit they were, how much alcohol they drank, whether they smoked, or how old they were.
“You’re never too old to do something,” Bryant Johnson, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s trainer, told the Associated Press.
Eat more fresh foods, like vegetables and fruits, which contain health-promoting phytochemicals.
A plate full of colorful plants doesn’t just look pretty – those bright colors come from nutrient-rich phytochemicals, which reduce inflammation in the body and help keep people cancer-free.
Vegetables and other plants like whole grains and nuts also help keep people full and satisfied after eating by providing plenty of fiber (which is missing in meat).
Eating more plants may also lead people to cut back on junk food, which we know is linked to more death and cancer cases, and rely less on animal proteins, which are linked to more heart attack deaths.
Specifically, follow the Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of fresh greens, fish, and fruit.
Study after study suggests that a Mediterranean diet, which is traditionally rich in fish, olive oil, fruits, nuts, and vegetables, is ideal for overall health.
Evidence even suggests that a specific kind of Mediterranean-style diet, called the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), may be one of the best for avoiding cognitive decline. The MIND diet encourages people to eat plenty of leafy greens, and fresh fruit like berries, which studies suggest are some of the best for brain health, while limiting some other Mediterranean staples, like eggs and cheese.
One 2015 study of over 900 people suggested that people who follow the MIND diet closely can lower their rate of cognitive decline by a measurable amount – the equivalent of gaining 7.5 years of young, sharp life. Another long-term study of the MIND diet involving 600 adults over age 65 is ongoing in the US, with some of the first results expected by 2021.
Enjoy working on tough problems.
- Nobel Laureate Arthur Ashkin, 96, in his basement lab on December 21, 2018.
- Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
One might think that a 96-year-old scientist with a Nobel Prize would be taking it easy now. But not Arthur Ashkin. The physicist – who helped develop optical tweezers, which can pick up tiny objects using only light – still tinkers in his basement lab every day.
People who study age-related decline aren’t surprised by that.
“While nobody knows exactly why some people are superagers, we believe that one common factor is that they engage in demanding mental exercise,” Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor who studies superaging, recently wrote in The Guardian.
Finding meaningful work can also help connect us to others – another key to aging well.
“Working for a social cause or purpose with others who share your values and are trusted partners puts you in contact with others and helps develop a greater sense of community,” Steve Cole, director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently told the National Institutes of Health.
- A senior woman from the Dan tribe dances during a ceremony in the Ivory Coast, May 5, 2019.
- Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images
A British study followed more than 9,300 people over the age of 50 over several years, and found that people who generally agreed with statements like “I enjoy the things that I do,” “I feel full of energy these days,” and “I look back on my life with a sense of happiness,” were less likely to die than people who found those statements untrue and said they weren’t as happy with their lives.
People who reported some of the lowest levels of enjoyment in life were also the most likely to die.
Pick out friends and companions who you like spending time with, and make them a priority.
One of the best things you can do for your long-term health is to spend time with people who you care about.
An 80-year study of more than 250 men, which started when they were sophomores at Harvard during the Great Depression, suggested that close, nurturing relationships were more important for their long-lasting happiness than wealth, intelligence, or genetics.
“Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains,” study director Robert Waldinger said in a TED talk.
Another study of more than 300,000 people around the globe found that people with “adequate social relationships” are 50% less likely to die. Being with a partner can help, too. Researchers have long noticed that married people are better nourished and survive more heart attacks. Married men specifically tend to have better brain health in old age.
It makes sense then that people who feel more isolated and lonely fare worse when it comes to a host of health outcomes: They develop higher rates of heart problems, obesity, and cognitive decline. In fact, one study of more than 1,600 people in the US over age 60 found that loneliness was predictive of both functional decline and death. (But it’s important to remember that loneliness isn’t the same thing as being alone, so it’s best to focus on the quality of your relationships, instead of how much time you spend around other people.)
Finally, get serious about your sleep schedule.
- Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images
Sleep makes our waking life possible: When our bodies rest, our brains get to work, flushing out toxins and helping maintain the neural pathways that allow us to learn and form memories.
A lack of good sleep (less than 8 hours a night or so) is linked to higher rates of disease, overweight bodies, stroke, and Alzheimer’s.
When we don’t get enough snooze time, we deplete our body’s stores of white blood cells – natural killer cells that are critical in our immune response.
It’s common for older people to sleep less and wake up more frequently. Researchers are still working to identify the mechanisms that regulate sleep in old age, but there are some initial clues that the loss of some of the same receptors in the brain that regulate sleep may also be linked to shorter lifespans.
- Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Here are three of the biggest lies about nutrition I was fed as a kid:
Low-fat foods are always better for you than high-fat options. Drinking more milk makes your bones stronger. And you’re only properly hydrated once your pee comes out clear.
Nope, nope, and nope.
I didn’t know this at the time, but some of the “facts” about healthy eating that I absorbed as a youngster were clever marketing tactics dressed up as expert guidance about what to eat. Other pieces of advice have since been debunked by scientific research.
Here are a few dozen nutrition myths many of us were told as tots that simply aren’t true.
MYTH: Low-fat products are better for your waistline than high-fat versions of the same foods.
- Reuters/Ho New
It may seem counterintuitive, but eating less fat can actually make your body fatter.
“Fat consumption does not cause weight gain,” doctor Aaron Carroll wrote in his book “The Bad Food Bible.” “To the contrary, it might actually help us shed a few pounds.”
This is because people who skimp on fat (something our bodies need to function properly) are more likely to fill up on sugar and refined carbohydrates instead, and that can lead to measurable weight gain over time. Studies of people around the globe show this to be true time and again.
Fat molecules help our body’s cells stay healthy, and they aid us in absorbing nutrients in the other foods we eat. So if you prefer whole milk to skim, there’s no reason to feel guilty about that.
MYTH: You should “refuel” with electrolytes after a workout.
Sorry, Gatorade-lovers, but electrolytes and performance drinks don’t do anything special for your body.
“Athletes who lose the most body mass during marathons, ultramarathons, and Ironman triathlons are usually the most successful, which suggests that fluid losses are not as tightly linked to performance as sports drink makers claim,” science journalist Christie Aschwanden writes in her 2019 book, “Good to go: What the athlete in all of us can learn from the strange science of recovery.”
Aschwanden explains that your brain is perfectly capable of regulating electrolytes like salt in the body on its own.
“You need enough fluid and electrolytes in your blood for your cells to function properly, and this balance is tightly regulated by a feedback loop,” she said.
MYTH: Your pee should be clear, and you should drink eight glasses of water per day.
- Shutterstock/D. Hammonds
If your pee is clear, you’ll probably need to find a toilet soon, because you’re over-hydrated.
The truth is, the body has a “thirst center” in the brain that helps regulate how much fluid we need, and it’s impressively tuned (though it tends to become less effective as we move into old age). So the most important way to stay hydrated is to listen to your thirst and drink when you feel like it.
Don’t ignore itchings for water or confuse them with hunger, and you’ll generally be fine. And don’t worry too much about the color of your urine, either. A light yellow or straw-like color can indicate you’re well hydrated, but darker urine isn’t necessarily a reason to panic.
“Dark pee might mean that you’re running low on fluid, but it could also mean that your kidneys are keeping your plasma osmolality in check by conserving water,” Aschwanden said.
MYTH: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
- Tella Chen/flickr
Some cereal companies have made a lot of cash off that catchy phrase.
“Many – if not most – studies demonstrating that breakfast eaters are healthier and manage weight better than non-breakfast eaters were sponsored by Kellogg or other breakfast cereal companies whose businesses depend on people believing that breakfast means ready-to-eat cereal,” nutrition expert Marion Nestle wrote on her Food Politics blog in 2015. “Independently-funded studies tend to show that any eating pattern can promote health if it provides vegetables and fruits, balances calories, and does not include much junk food.”
Nestle keeps her own breakfast advice short and sweet: “If you wake up starving, by all means eat an early breakfast. If not, eat when you are hungry and don’t worry about it.”
In fact, studies have shown that people who work out in the morning on an empty stomach can burn up to 20% more body fat during their workouts.
Of course, studies still pop up suggesting that skipping breakfast is linked with early death. But personal trainer Max Lowery recently told Insider that such research may not consider every factor.
“People who are more health-conscious overall tend to eat breakfast because they are following health guidelines,” Lowery pointed out, “whereas people who skip breakfast are usually unhealthier overall because they are ignoring guidelines”
Still, nutritionists often suggest eating something in the first two to three waking hours of the day to avoid getting cranky and hangry.
MYTH: Cereal is a great breakfast food.
- Melia Robinson/Business Insider
Most cereals are ultra-processed. That means they’re infused with preservatives, packaged in plastic bags, and sprinkled with sugar.
Scientists are beginning to zero in on the dangers of processed foods like this: People who rely on these types of convenience foods tend to eat more (about 500 extra calories a day) and gain more weight than people who stick to unprocessed fruits, vegetables, grains, and other edible plants.
Instead of starting the day with cereal, many dietitians and nutrition experts suggest having a cup of plain Greek yogurt topped with nuts and berries. That will give your body healthy fats, protein, and fiber to keep you full.
MYTH: 100% real fruit juice is a healthy choice.
Scientists recently looked at the health records of more than 13,400 US adults, and concluded that each additional 12-ounce serving of juice people drank per day was associated with a 24% higher risk of death.
Nutrition experts who study sugary drinks were not surprised by this result, because the way our bodies process the sugar in fruit juice is almost identical to the way we take in sugar from a can of soda. Juice just doesn’t satisfy our bellies like a piece of fibrous fruit does.
“It’s basically sugar and water, and no protein or fat to counteract that metabolism,” Jean Welsh, a nutrition professor at Emory University, previously told Business Insider.
In the same vein, smoothies – which are often loaded with sugar and may not contain all the fiber available in whole fruits – are not a health food, either.
MYTH: Snacking is healthy.
- Shutterstock/David Orcea
Snacking can be a healthful habit, since it keeps people from overeating at meals. But research shows that inserting snacks into your daily routine isn’t necessarily better for your health than eating three square meals a day.
Besides, many readily available snack foods aren’t very good for us, since they are often ultra-processed and high in sugar, so are linked with weight gain and more cancer cases.
“When you eat real, wholesome, healthy foods, you feel full sooner,” Ocean Robbins, grandson of ice cream magnate Irvine Robins (a Baskin-Robbins co-founder) recently told Business Insider. “Your body feels nourished. You actually have the nutrients you need and in time you can have less cravings.”
MYTH: Fasting is bad for your health.
- Clancy Morgan/Business Insider
Taking an occasional break from eating is becoming a popular Silicon Valley trend, and there’s a surprising amount of evidence supporting it.
Intermittent fasting can help people ward off diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity. The practice can also boost the production of a protein that strengthens connections in the brain and can serve as an antidepressant. Scientists even think fasting can lengthen our lifespans by keeping cells healthy and youthful longer.
In general, it’s good to give your gut a break for at least 12 hours a day, biologist and circadian rhythm researcher Satchidananda Panda told the New York Times in 2015.
Just don’t overdo it.
MYTH: You’re probably not getting enough protein.
- Irene Jiang / Business Insider
Just because something has lots of protein doesn’t make it healthy.
“Most Americans get more than enough protein from their diet,” public-health experts at the University of California, Berkeley wrote recently in Berkeley Wellness. (Adults over 65 are a notable exception to that rule, though.)
A long-term study of over 131,300 people in the US found that the more animal protein people ate, the more likely they were to die of a heart attack, suggesting that it may be best to favor plant proteins like those from nuts and beans, rather than relying on meat.
MYTH: The food pyramid should be your go-to guide.
Let’s get one thing straight: This is a picture of a food triangle on the side of a pyramid.
The “pyramid” above was released by the USDA in 1992, and it suggests there is one ideal strategy for healthy eating that everyone can follow. That strategy, it suggested, was to load up on breads and pastas, eat ample servings of fruits and vegetables (three to five per day), and round out one’s diet with some dairy and protein from sources like meats, nuts, and beans.
But researchers are discovering in study after study that what works for one person may not be right for everyone else. Different bodies respond differently to ingested fats and carbohydrates, so a stable energy source for one person could lead another’s blood sugar to skyrocket then crash.
Nutrition experts generally agree, however, that everyone can benefit from eating more unprocessed foods, like leafy greens, seafood, nuts, and brown rice, while cutting out the processed white bread and crackers found on the bottom of this triangle.
MYTH: Carob chips are healthier than chocolate.
- A chocolatier in the Ivory Coast explains how cocoa is processed into chocolate.
- Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images
Health-conscious dessert-lovers for years bought carob chips instead of chocolate. Carob is made from the dried fruit of Mediterranean carob trees (whereas chocolate comes from cacao). But they might have been better off sticking to chocolate.
“No offense to carob, but it doesn’t taste as good as chocolate,” Robbins said. “It turns out that chocolate’s actually better for you – it’s good for your heart and it’s good for your brain.”
That doesn’t mean you should eat candy bars. But a bit of dark chocolate (70% cacao or higher) here and there could help improve blood flow and protect the heart.
Scientists have found no real link between chocolate consumption and acne breakouts, either.
MYTH: Yogurt is always a healthy choice.
- Getty Images/Joe Raedle
Most prepackaged yogurts in the dairy case are packed with sugar.
If you like yogurt, find a plain one; you can always sprinkle nuts, seeds, berries, or spices like cinnamon and nutmeg on top for flavor.
MYTH: Margarine is better for you than butter, and all oil is bad.
- Business Insider Video
Margarine was a darling toast-topper during the low-fat craze of the 1990s. Made from plant oils like palm oil, canola oil, and soybeans, it was marketed as a “healthier” alternative to animal fats.
But margarine used to include trans fat. Harvard researchers estimate that during the heyday of artificial trans fats in the 1990s, their presence in our food supply led to roughly 50,000 preventable deaths every year in the US. The FDA rolled out a near-universal ban on artificial trans fats in 2018, and most margarines today are trans-fat free.
But butter alternatives are highly processed, and vegetable oils that are lab-heated to prevent spoilage, like those in margarine, can be serious drivers of disease. Often, a key ingredient in margarine is palm oil, which is not nearly as good for our hearts as monounsaturated fats that are in a liquid state at room temperature, like olive oil. Monounsaturated fats can lower bad cholesterol levels and keep our immune systems humming with Vitamin E, making them a healthier choice.
MYTH: Ditch cholesterol-heavy egg yolks and only eat the whites.
- Shanti May / Shutterstock
For most people, there’s no evidence that the cholesterol in eggs translates to higher blood cholesterol.
There is a lot of cholesterol in a chicken egg yolk: more than 180 milligrams, over half our daily recommended dose. But that doesn’t mean we should be wary of a yellow morning omelette.
“Actually, there’s never been a single study that showed higher egg consumption is related to higher risk of heart disease,” Harvard nutrition researcher Walter Willett told The Cut in 2015.
MYTH: You should eat as few carbs as possible.
- France fans enjoy the atmosphere prior to the 2014 World Cup match between Ecuador and France on June 25, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
- Julian Finney/Getty Images
Not all carbohydrates are bad.
Quinoa, bananas, apples, beans, and carrots are all relatively high-carb foods, and studies repeatedly show that people who eat a wide variety of these foods, in addition to whole grains, tend to have trimmer waistlines and lower blood-pressure levels.
It’s true, however, that once grains are stripped of their protein-hefty bran and germ, they’re not great at providing key nutrients or satiating us for hours after we eat. That’s why it’s still a good idea to avoid refined carbs, which are used to make items like cookies and white bread.
MYTH: Counting calories is a good weight-loss strategy.
- Shutterstock/Alan Bailey
A calorie is a calorie, right? Wrong.
Nutritionists increasingly urge people to evaluate foods holistically, rather than based on individual nutrients or calorie counts.
Take avocados, for example. A cup has 234 calories and 14 grams of monounsaturated fat, along with smaller doses of polyunsaturated (2.7 g) and saturated fat (3.1 g). But an avocado also provides good doses of fiber, protein, and potassium,which can help maintain healthy blood-pressure levels. No one would suggest you’d get the same health benefits or stay as full after eating 234 calories’ worth of potato chips (that’d be about 25 chips).
Recent studies have shown that plants are the best choice for our health, and consuming more processed foods – even with the exact same amount of calories on offer – can lead to weight gain.
MYTH: Orange juice will help you get over a cold.
- A vendor sells orange juice during the holy month of Ramadan at a market area in Amman, Jordan on May 8, 2019.
- REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
Orange juice is high in Vitamin C, which helps keep our immune systems strong.
But that doesn’t mean that a glass of OJ will fight a cold you already have, or even that it will make your cold go away more quickly. Instead, try sucking on a zinc lozenge – some studies suggest that taking zinc can lead some people’s colds to end quicker.
MYTH: Getting nutrients from vitamins is the same as eating them in foods, so a multivitamin a day keeps the doctor away.
Scientists have tested the effects of multivitamins again and again, but they just haven’t found good evidence of any real benefits for our health.
“Show me a single study ever done saying people who took a multivitamin pill … did better. There’s no study,” Ajay Goel, a biophysicist who researches cancer, recently told Business Insider.
The US Preventative Services Task Force does not recommend that people take vitamins or supplements as a preventive measure for heart disease or cancer, the leading causes of death in the US. In fact, there’s evidence that supplements can do more harm than good.
“Extra vitamin A supplements can lead to dangerous, toxic levels if taken too frequently,” Dr. Clifford Lo, associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health said in a blog post.
Try getting important vitamins and minerals from fresh fruits and vegetables.
MYTH: Salt is bad for you.
There isn’t any compelling evidence that salt on its own raises blood pressure or contributes to more heart attacks or death.
It may be the case that people who eat a lot of salt are at risk of developing health problems for a host of other reasons, mostly because their diets and lifestyles are less healthy overall. For example, salt is a great preservative, which means there is a lot of it in processed food, which we know is not good for us.
MYTH: Eating carrots helps you see better.
This piece of false information may have originated in WWII, according to Snopes, when Britain pretended that its bomber pilots had freakishly good, carrot-fueled eyesight instead of admitting to using radar to track Nazis.
Carrots are good for eye health, but they cannot help you see better than you already do. Carrots are rich in chemicals called carotenoids, as are spinach, kale, collard greens, and sweet potatoes. Our bodies convert these chemicals from plants into nutrients like vitamin A, which is essential for developing healthy embryos, keeping tissues healthy, and ensuring the immune system functions properly. People who have diets rich in the carotenoid beta carotene, for example, have lower instances of cervical cancer and slight reductions in breast cancer risk.
To keep eyes healthy as we age, researchers who study macular degeneration suggest eating a variety of plants rich in Vitamin C, E, zinc, omega-3’s, and other nutrients. In addition to carrots, that list includes fish, broccoli, nuts, and berries.
MYTH: Coffee is dangerous for your health.
For decades, researchers have been investigating whether coffee drinking is bad for our health. Overwhelmingly, the answer is no.
A wealth of scientific studies suggest that drinking coffee can help people live long lives. Perhaps the best evidence for this comes from two giant studies: one of more than 400,000 people in the US and another of more than 500,000 Europeans. Both studies found that regular coffee drinkers were less likely to die from any cause than people who don’t sip a daily cup of joe.
Other research has even suggested that drinking somewhere in the neighborhood of four cups of coffee per day may be the best dose for aging hearts.
But coffee is not the perfect drink.
“For some people it is unhelpful, because it makes them jittery, and they get addicted to it, and they get headaches if they don’t drink a lot of it,” Robbins said. “And I think our society is a little high-strung sometimes.”
MYTH: Diet soda is fine.
Zero calories! No problem then, right?
Diet soda can be a good way to wean yourself off of sugary beverages, but scientists still aren’t sure that it’s a harm-free choice. A recent 34-year study of more than 118,000 men and women across the US found that diet soda and sugar substitutes may not be much better for our bodies than sugary beverages when consumed in large doses.
“Diet soda may be used to help frequent consumers of sugary drinks cut back their consumption, but water is the best and healthiest choice,” Vasanti Malik, the study’s lead author and a research scientist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a release.
Malik found that women who drank four or more artificially sweetened beverages per day significantly upped their risk of death (the finding didn’t hold true for men, though). The researchers think the explanation for an observed link between diet drinks and death may just be that people who are already overweight drink more diet beverages. But more research is needed.
MYTH: You need to drink a lot of milk to prevent osteoporosis.
- Got Milk?
Got milk? This was a clever piece of advertising drummed up by the California Milk Processor Board in the 1990s to fight declining milk sales.
Milk-mustached celebrities suggested to us for years that there’s something special about the calcium in milk that helps our bones stay strong. But there’s really no evidence to suggest that milk has advantages over other calcium-rich foods like leafy greens and legumes.
We do need calcium to build strong bones, and there is a good dose of it available in dairy; but we also need Vitamins D and K for adequate bone health. Besides, heavy milk drinkers do not appear to be any less susceptible to bone fractures.
They’re quick, they’re easy, they’re cheap, and they’re really bad for us.
Processed foods are under fresh scrutiny this week after a groundbreaking study from the National Institutes of Health revealed that people on ultra-processed diets eat more calories and gain more weight than they do when offered the exact same amount of nutrients from less processed food.
The finding suggests there’s something different about how quickly our bodies take in processed foods and how those foods interact with key hormones that help regulate our appetites.
But this is far from the first time that processed foods have been linked to dangerous outcomes. Other researchers have connected packaged and ready-made foods to more cancer cases and more early deaths.
This mounting evidence raises a somewhat tricky question: What, exactly, designates a certain food as processed? After all, a chicken salad sandwich prepared at home may qualify as a processed meal, as does a cheesy quesadilla.
To answer that question, scientists and nutrition experts often use a four-tiered system called NOVA that classifies everything we eat into one of these four categories: unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed food and drink products.
Here’s what those categories mean:
Unprocessed foods include edible parts of plants (fruits, vegetables, seeds, roots, etcetera) or animals, as well as fungi and algae. These can be fresh, frozen, or even fermented; the important distinction is that they have not been treated with additives, injected with salt, or rubbed with oil until they’re about to be eaten. Examples include dry beans, grains like rice, fresh or dried mushrooms, meat and dairy products, seafood, plain yogurt, nuts, and spices.
Processed culinary ingredients involve a step up in production. These are ingredients made from unprocessed foods, like vegetable oils, butter, and lard. This category also includes extracted food, like honey from combs, sugar from cane, and syrup from maple trees.
Processed foods are items that get infused with ingredients like sugar, salt, and fat to help keep them edible longer. Canned fruits, fermented breads (most breads are, as they’re made with yeast), alcohol, cheese, pickles, and salted nuts all make this list.
Finally, there are ultra-processed foods. These items are designed to be ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat at a moment’s notice. To make that possible, these foods are often factory-manufactured, broken down from their whole or fresh form, and treated with thickeners, colors, glazes, and additives. They may be pre-fried before they’re packed into cans and wrappers. They might contain high fructose corn syrup, protein isolates, or interesterified oils (replacements for trans fats, which are now widely banned). Examples of ultra-processed foods include packaged granola bars, carbonated soft drinks, candy, mass-produced breads, margarine, energy drinks, flavored yogurt, chicken nuggets, and hot dogs.
These are the items researchers refer to when they say that “ultra-processed” foods are linked to more cancer cases, early deaths, and weight gain. Of course, these items also tend to be convenient and cheaper than less processed food, since they’re less perishable.
- Via Flickr
“Ultra-processed food has a lot of advantages in terms of its convenience,” Kevin Hall, the lead author of the NIH study, told Business Insider. “It’s cheap, it sticks around for a while, you don’t have to have all the fresh ingredients on hand, which might spoil. You don’t have to have all the equipment to prepare these meals from scratch.”
But experts including Hall caution that if you can afford it, cutting back on ultra-processed food is a good strategy for maintaining a healthy weight and staying disease-free.
“You can’t just tax them and make them more expensive and less convenient for people,” he said. “You also have to support access and availability to unprocessed meals.”
- Quesadillas made with canned beans, store-bought tortillas, deli meat, and shredded cheese are considered processed food.
Here’s an experiment: Sit alone in a hospital room for two weeks and eat nothing but ultra-processed foods like hot dogs, muffins, canned ravioli, and chicken salad.
You probably wouldn’t love the results.
But that’s exactly what 20 men and women did in a recent, rigorously controlled study from the National Institutes of Health. Those participants ended up gaining an average of 2 pounds in those two weeks on this ultra-processed diet. They also consumed about 500 additional calories every day, compared to a different two-week period in which the same people followed an unprocessed meal plan.
The scientists behind the study – which was published Thursday – found that this discrepancy arose because patients who were fed processed meals tended to overeat, even though researchers controlled for how much salt, fat, sugar, protein, fiber, and carbohydrates each meal contained (regardless of whether it consisted of processed versus unprocessed items).
“This is the first time that we can actually say that there’s a causal relationship between something that’s independent of the nutrients … that is driving these differences in calorie intake and weight gain,” lead researcher Kevin Hall told Business Insider.
His team isn’t yet sure why processed food makes us hungrier, but they have a few educated hypotheses. For one, they think the difference in calorie consumption might have something to do with the ways that fresh foods trigger hormones that regulate our appetite (ghrelin), and suppress hunger (PYY). Additionally, people tend to eat unprocessed foods more slowly, which gives our body more time to register that we’re full before we overeat.
Beyond its link to overeating, a diet heavy in processed food is also linked with all kinds of other health problems, according to previous research: People who consume it regularly are more likely to get cancer and die quicker than others.
Given that stark comparison, here’s how to determine what to seek out and what to avoid.
The difference between processed and unprocessed food
- This processed dinner of prepared mac and cheese, chicken tenders and canned green beans had to be supplemented with tons of diet lemonade fortified with fiber in order to match the nutrient levels in an unprocessed meal.
- Hall et al./Cell Metabolism
Researchers classify “ultra-processed” foods as items that are generally factory-made and come laden with additives and preservatives like sweeteners and thickeners. Generally, these things are packaged in plastic or cans. You’re likely to see “high fructose corn syrup” on the ingredient list of an ultra-processed food item, or perhaps some interesterified oils (replacements for trans fats, which are now widely banned).
Unprocessed food, on the other hand, involves raw ingredients like fresh produce, unflavored yogurt, home-cooked meat, and whole grains.
But food items don’t have to be completely fresh to be considered unprocessed. In the NIH study, the researchers relied on the NOVA food-rating system, which designates foods as unprocessed if they are edible parts of plants (including nuts), animals, fungi, algae, or water. So it’s fine to freeze, boil, ferment, or refrigerate ingredients. But unlike their processed versions, unprocessed foods are not cured or pre-salted.
The study authors described and photographed the meals they fed their 20 participants – both during their processed-food weeks and the time spent on a fresher eating plan.
Here’s one of the processed breakfasts that the participants ate in the lab:
- This processed breakfast includes egg mix, turkey bacon, and American cheese on an English muffin with a side of tater tots and ketchup. The orange juice was supplemented with extra fiber.
- Hall et al./Cell Metabolism
One of the processed lunch meals was a tasty-looking quesadilla made with deli turkey, cheddar and jack cheeses, and refried beans from a can. Personally, I found that one disheartening, since it sounds like something I might make at home. So did a chicken salad sandwich made with canned chicken, pickle relish, and mayonnaise – one of the ultra-processed dinners.
While on an unprocessed diet, on the other hand, the participants ate more produce and skipped sides like tater tots. Here’s what a day’s worth of unprocessed meals looked like in the lab:
Unprocessed breakfast: a yogurt parfait
- This unprocessed breakfast includes a Greek yogurt parfait with strawberries, bananas, walnuts, salt,olive oil, and apple slices with fresh squeezed lemon juice.
- Hall et al./Cell Metabolism
Unprocessed lunch: spinach salad
- An unprocessed lunch on the menu was a spinach salad with chicken breast, apple slices, bulgur, sunflower seeds, and grapes. The salad was tossed with a vinaigrette made with olive oil, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, ground mustard seed, black pepper, and salt.
- Hall et al./Cell Metabolism
Unprocessed dinner: stir-fried beef tender roast
- For dinner one night, study participants ate stir-fried beef tender roast with broccoli, onions, sweet peppers, ginger, garlic, and olive oil, along with a side of basmati rice, some orange slices, pecan halves, and salt and pepper.
- Hall et al./Cell Metabolism
After two weeks of meals like these, participants managed to shed an average of 2 pounds.
- Nutritionists are zeroing in on healthy, whole foods that come mainly from plants, not animals, as the secret to a longer life.
- with wind/Flickr
- Low-carb diets like the ketogenic diet are popular strategies for rapid weight loss and appetite control.
- Keto diets require eaters to essentially forgo all carbohydrates and fuel up on fats and limited amounts of proteins instead.
- Because sugar is a carb, many keto dieters drastically reduce their sugar intake – but they eliminate healthier carbs too.
- Nutritionists are starting to notice that people who live the longest tend to incorporate more plant-based foods, including some fiber-rich carbs, into their diets.
- It’s another reminder that focusing on healthy, plant-based, whole foods is a better long-term strategy than dieting.
Scientists and dietitians are starting to agree on a recipe for a long, healthy life. It’s not sexy, and it doesn’t involve fancy pills or pricey diet potions.
Fill your plate with plants. Include vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and legumes. Don’t include a lot of meat, milk, or highly processed foods that a gardener or farmer wouldn’t recognize.
“There’s absolutely nothing more important for our health than what we eat each and every day,” Sara Seidelmann, a cardiologist and nutrition researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told Business Insider.
Seidelmann recently published a massive, blockbuster global study of the eating patterns of more than 447,000 people around the world. What she discovered – and what is probably not a huge surprise – is that no matter where you live or what your daily diet is like, banning entire food groups and thinking you can cheat your way into good health might work for a while, but it could also send you into an early grave.
The popular ketogenic diet, which involves strictly limiting carbs to less than 50 grams a day (that’s no more than two apples’ worth) and subsisting primarily on high-fat foods, is one of those restrictive diets that could have harmful long-term consequences.
Other low-carb weight-loss diets that fall into this category include paleo, Atkins, Dukan, and Whole 30. Nutrition experts say that besides their potential for harm, these popular diets are really hard to follow.
[Read More: The keto diet could make certain cancer treatments more effective in mice, a study found – and a human trial is moving forward]
Some benefits of going keto are difficult to dispute. Following a high-fat, low-carb diet can be a solid strategy for rapid weight loss and blood-sugar control. The keto diet can also be great for children with tough-to-control epileptic seizures. For decades, people have seen stellar results managing those conditions on a keto diet with the help and guidance of professionals.
But there’s some limited evidence that going low-carb might also lead people to become less tolerant of glucose and develop diabetes, though more research is needed.
What we do know, based on carefully conducted laboratory testing of overweight men, is that going keto probably doesn’t help burn more body fat than a regular regimen. Instead, it forces people to dramatically curb their sugar intake (remember, sugar is 100% carbohydrate) and kick processed foods to the curb. Those are both good habits for overall health and blood-sugar levels, and they can help reduce your likelihood of developing cancer.
But like taking aspirin, eating a special high-fat, low-carb diet probably shouldn’t be an everyday habit for otherwise healthy people. Our bodies simply aren’t designed to fuel up on fats, unless we’re literally starving. Even Josh Axe, a keto evangelist, has said it’s not a diet that should be followed for more than a few months at a time.
Finally, low-carb diets make it easy to neglect key nutrients like magnesium, calcium, and potassium that can be plentiful on less restrictive diets with fresh, high-carb foods like beans, bananas, and oats.
More studies suggest that people who eat whole, nutrient-rich foods live the longest and have a lower risk of cancer
More research that backs up Seidelmann’s was presented in August at the European Society of Cardiology Congress.
Researchers who presented at that conference studied the self-reported eating patterns of nearly 25,000 people in the US and compared their results with studies involving more than 447,500 people. Again, they found that those who ate a moderate amount of carbohydrates were more likely to live longer than either low-carb or high-carb dieters.
“Our study suggests that in the long-term, [low-carb diets] are linked with an increased risk of death from any cause, and deaths due to cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, and cancer,” Maciej Banach, a professor at the Medical University of Lodz in Poland who helped write the study, said in a release.
A third study published this week in the journal PLOS Medicine that surveyed the eating habits of 471,495 Europeans over 22 years found that people whose diets had lower “nutritional quality” (i.e., fewer fresh vegetables, legumes, and nuts) were more likely to develop some of the most common and deadliest forms of cancer, including colon, stomach, lung, liver, and breast cancers.
[Read More: Silicon Valley’s favorite diet can lead to kidney trouble – here’s how to go keto without getting sick]
Basically, we’re learning there’s no shortcut to healthy eating
It can be tricky calculating the precise kind of diet that leads to a long life. Part of the problem is that (thankfully) we don’t live our lives in highly controlled laboratory conditions. Until that terrifying day arrives and we all become well-studied lab rats, we have to rely on long-term observational data, usually in the form of surveys, to know more about which diets are the best long-term plans.
In study after study, survey data from around the world has shown that people who stick to limited amounts of meats, dairy, and processed foods while fueling up on fiber-rich plant-based foods including vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and, yes, even carb-heavy beans have some of the best health outcomes. Seidelmann describes their diets as being rich in “whole foods.”
“They were not processed,” she said of the diets of people in her study who lived the longest. These people would consume whole-grain rice, not white varieties. They’d eat plants like fruits and vegetables, not more-processed versions like fruit juice or smoothies.
“You have the intact fiber; you have a lot more nutrients,” Seidelmann said.
Fiber isn’t just good for keeping your gut moving – scientists feeding diets rich in fiber to mice are discovering that the carbs, which can’t be absorbed by the body, can help protect aging brains from some of the damaging chemicals associated with Alzheimer’s and reduce inflammation in the gut. They’re confident that the health benefits of eating more fiber extend to humans too.
But a plant-based regimen with lots of fiber can be tricky to maintain on a low-carb diet, because some of the highest-fiber foods are also high in carbs, such as savory beans, crunchy peas, and sweet fruits.
“It is not a common pattern to eat very low-carb, strictly plant-based,” Seidelmann said. “At least in the Western world, it tends to be more animal-based. That just is what it is.”
People on low-carb diets often turn to more butter and meat for sustenance, which can increase blood pressure and, in the case of processed meats, contribute to cancer. Meat and dairy can also contribute to inflammation in the body, which can help cancerous tumors form and grow.
The new scientific findings all support what parents, trainers, and coaches have been saying for years: eat less junk, and continue to be skeptical of the latest miracle diet, be it keto or any other passing fad.