Foods for Long Life and Well-Being

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If you’ve made it this far in life, chances are strong that you may live into your 80s or even 90s. But will you be living well?

“We probably can’t extend life much beyond what we already have done,” says William Hart, PhD, MPH, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at the St. Louis University Doisy School of Allied Health Professions. “But we can help make those last five to 10 years of life more enjoyable. Living longer isn’t much fun if you’re not healthy enough to enjoy it.”

So what’s the secret to staying healthy as you get older? Exercise, of course. Also, the right food. To get started, add these five nutrients to your diet.

Soy to Manage Your Cholesterol

“No, adding soy to your diet does not mean pouring more soy sauce on your Chinese food,” says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, LDN, director of sports dietary fiber. It’s a little known fact: Most of us should double the amount of fiber we eat if we want to reap its benefits.

“None of us eats enough fiber,” says William Hart. The average American eats 12 grams of fiber a day; most health organizations recommend 20 to 35 grams.

By following the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, most consumers are advised to get as many as nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables that will contribute plenty of fiber.

Studies have shown that dietary soluble fiber – including foods such as apples, barley, beans and other legumes, fruits and vegetables, oatmeal, oat bran and brown rice — clearly lower cholesterol. High-fiber foods are also digested more slowly, so they don’t cause spikes in blood sugar levels like white bread, potatoes and sweets do. Of course, everyone knows that fiber helps keep you regular, but so do laxatives. Fiber, however, has an added plus: High-fiber foods help us feel full, making it easier to control weight.

You get more nutritional “bang for your buck” with high-fiber food, says Hart.

Antioxidant “Superfoods” to Protect Your Cells and Heart

When you’re thinking “superfoods,” think color, says Beverly Clevidence, PhD, a research leader at the USDA’s Diet and Human Performance Laboratory. That means foods that are deep blue, purple, red, green, or orange. The carotenoids and anthocyanins that provide the color for these foods contain health-enhancing nutrients that protect against heart disease and cancer, and also improve our sense of balance, our memory, and other cognitive skills.

Your “superfoods” color chart should include:

“I’ve definitely been adding berries to my diet throughout the year,” says Clevidence.

You don’t have to limit your berry intake to in-season either. Fresh, frozen (without sugar), or dried…the benefits are the same.

Got milk? If you want to keep your bones strong and lessen your chance of as you get older, add calcium-rich foods such as low-fat cheese and milk to your diet. also keeps teeth strong, helps your muscles contract, and your heart beat. Recent studies have even shown that calcium may lower your risk of colon polyps, and help you lose weight. Researchers at Purdue University found that women who consume calcium from low-fat dairy products, or get at least 1,000 milligrams a day, showed an overall decrease in body weight.

As you get older, the amount of minerals in your bones decrease. Too little calcium increases your risk for osteoporosis and, with it, disabling or life-threatening fractures

Dairy products are the best source of calcium. Choose skim milk, low-fat yogurt, and low-fat cheese to avoid . A single serving can provide you with 30% of the 1,000 milligrams a day you need. You can also add calcium to your diet with calcium-enriched cereals and orange juice. Foods such as dark green vegetables, dried beans, and sardines also contain calcium.

Won’t taking a calcium supplement do the trick? Sure, says William Hart, but calcium-rich foods are also high in protein needed for bone and muscle strength.

While you’re adding calcium to your diet, don’t forget to exercise. Your bones will thank you later. “Calcium alone isn’t enough. Add weight-bearing exercise as well,” says Hart. Take the stairs, park at the far end of the parking lot, walk wherever you can. You’ll help the calcium do its job.”

Water for Energy and Your Skin

Most people don’t drink enough water,” says nutritionist Susan Ayersman. “We need water to flush out toxins, keep our tissues hydrated, keep our energy up.”

Water is also essential if you’re eating high-fiber foods, says Leslie Bonci at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Water helps fiber do its job.

Don’t stint on water just because you don’t want to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, says Bonci. “Just be strategic about when you drink it,” she says. “Drinking throughout the day, and not just before you go to bed should keep you from having to get up during the night.”

If plain water doesn’t quite do it for you, add slices of lemon, lime, or orange for flavor without calories. Or try a sprig of mint for a refreshing change of pace.

The Bottom Line

Don’t be overwhelmed with all these suggestions. You don’t need to add everything in at once. “Make haste slowly,” says Bonci. “Add a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, replace a glass of milk with soy milk…just take it one step at a time.”

Agrees Hart: “It’s simply a matter of deciding to get the foods into your diet.”