Article authored by Readout Health with editorial oversight from Chief Medical Officer, Naomi Parrella, M.D.
“You are what you eat.”
Ever heard this saying? This proverbial slogan may sound trite, but as it turns out, there’s a whole lot of truth behind it.
When it comes to well-being, food is one of the most powerful medicines around. Eating health-sustaining foods chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, fats, and protein, positively impacts every part of your body, including your hormones, your immune system, your circulatory system, your microbiome, and the way in which you derive energy. And when you make consistent food choices that aren’t ideal for your health? You can feel it. You start to gain weight, you feel sluggish, you’re not sleeping right, and you may even start to experience chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
If you were to poll the people you know about what their ultimate health goal is, it’s likely that longevity would be pretty high up on the list. This makes sense. After all, who doesn’t want to live a long life? Longevity is important, to be sure. But it’s not the whole story.
Lifespan vs. healthspan: what’s the difference?
The ideal goal for anyone who wants to age optimally is to not only maximize lifespan, but to maximize healthspan right alongside it.
A person’s lifespan is simply the total number of years lived. If you live to be 100, kudos to you – you’ve reached a long lifespan! But what if you spent a good many of those years battling disease, disabled, and feeling unwell? A person’s healthspan focuses on the quality of health, or years spent free of disability and disease, during the time lived. Living to be 100, while certainly an accomplishment, is far from enjoyable if you’re feeling crummy most of the time. You want to enjoy your golden years strong and healthy so that you can do everything you enjoy doing while feeling good and without limitations.
The lifespan around the world has increased significantly over the last few decades, with life expectancy jumping from 47 to 73 years old between 1950 and 2020. While that’s promising news, chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and respiratory disease continue to claim 71% of all annual deaths globally. In fact, it’s believed that almost 80% of all years lived are faced with some type of disability.
So while people are living much longer these days, many are spending those extra years sick, tired, and disabled. In other words, there remains a troubling gap between the quantity of years lived – the lifespan – and the quality of health while alive – the healthspan. While bridging the gap between the two can look like delaying the onset of disease or reducing the severity of it, the World Health Organization suggests taking it a step further, encouraging the global community to aspire for a state of “complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Expand your healthspan: how to eat for healthy longevity
Living a long life filled with vibrancy and health may seem like too lofty a goal, but here’s the reassuring thing. With your fork, you have the ultimate power to take charge of your health. By treating what you eat like medicine, you can decide to eat foods that heal versus harm, that prevent disease rather than contribute to it.
Eating to get your healthspan most aligned with your lifespan consists of consuming mostly foods that keep your blood sugar balanced. This is most easily achieved by focusing on low carb minimally processed, whole foods. During digestion, carbohydrates break down into sugar, which enters your bloodstream. A food that’s heavy in processed carbs will have a larger impact on your health because it causes a quick rise in your blood sugar which results in high insulin levels. If this is repeated frequently, the high insulin remains elevated. Managing blood sugar, better maintains the normal fluctuations of insulin, and is shown to not only prevent diabetes, but can also stave off a number of health conditions like obesity, heart disease, inflammation, and cognitive impairment. Enjoying a variety of fresh vegetables and foods that are low in carbs and focusing on adequate protein, fiber, and fat will curb rapid sugar and insulin spikes and maintain a steady blood sugar level and normal insulin response throughout the day.
Fill your plate with these healthspan-boosting foods
Vegetables. Vegetables are not only teeming with hundreds of disease-fighting antioxidants, they also offer a hefty dose of daily fiber to keep you full while helping to manage your weight and keep your gut healthy. Load up on these low carb veggies to get maximum nutrition while ensuring your blood sugar stays steady.
- Arugula, watercress, kale, lettuce, parsley, cilantro, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, Brussels sprouts, broccoli sprouts, cabbage, sea vegetables, mushrooms, and onions
Fruits. Like veggies, fruit packs a nutritious punch by delivering an array of powerful antioxidants and fiber. But here’s one thing to keep in mind: when it comes to fruit and your health, not all fruits are the same. Fruits are naturally sweet, which means that most can do a number on your blood sugar by causing it to spike. For this reason, it’s important to enjoy a moderate amount of low carb fruits that are shown to have the least impact on blood sugar. Eating a whole fruit is not the same as drinking juice. Avoid the juice because the fiber benefit has been removed.
- Berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, acai, goji), kiwi, lemons, limes, plum, avocado
Spices. Most people wouldn’t put spices in the superfoods bucket, but the science is pretty clear. Aside from elevating our cooking and tantalizing our taste buds, spices offer up a variety of compounds that deliver antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and cholesterol-lowering benefits. They may even improve mood and cognitive ability.
- Garlic, ginger, clove, rosemary, sage, cinnamon, oregano, raw cacao, turmeric
Protein. Protein is known as the “building blocks of life,” and for good reason. Protein makes up your skin, hair, and nails, and is found in every cell in your body to help build and repair your muscles and tissues. Getting enough protein reduces your appetite and cravings, supports your muscle mass, and helps you maintain weight loss. Protein needs change throughout life and there are trained professionals who can help determine your specific protein needs at your stage in life.
- Meat, poultry, seafood like wild salmon, sardines, eggs, and nuts (walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts)
Fats. For years, fat has gotten the raw deal, demonized among health enthusiasts as the main contributor to a growing waistline and heart disease. But research now shows that the role of fat has been largely misunderstood. Fat is essential for providing the body with energy, for keeping you feeling satisfied, and for allowing for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. In fact, omega-3 fats, which your body cannot create on its own, is critical for brain and eye health and helps keep your body’s inflammation to a minimum – an important thing to consider if preventing or treating disease is what you’re after.
- Extra virgin olive oil, extra virgin coconut butter or oil, wild salmon, sardines, flax seeds, avocado, nuts, full-fat yogurt