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The topic of longevity always brings polarizing views within the health and wellness community. Everyone has the same goal, but wildly contrasting strategies.
Now before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight. My opinion is that a vegan diet is the best route to longevity, so my view is also biased. Since we’re a plant-based website, that’s probably not a surprise.
My quest to find the best longevity diet had me obsessing over research papers until I found the answer I was looking for. That answer turned out to be veganism; and in this article I’m going to explain exactly why I came to this conclusion.
How important is diet for longevity?
The food you eat is definitely one of the most effective levers you can pull to increase your lifespan. It’s literally the building blocks of your body, which is neatly summed up by the phrase ‘you are what you eat’.
Adopting an eating strategy should be the first pillar in any longevity plan. The aim is to find a diet that allows you to perform at a high level on a daily basis, stave off disease and slow down the cellular aging process.
It’s important to note that most age related deaths are linked to one of the ‘big 4 diseases’. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia claim the lives of almost 1.5million Americans every year. Respiratory disease and strokes also claim the lives of another 300k annually, most of which are preventable through dietary intervention.
My view is that in order to optimize longevity in the modern age, you need to stave off disease and degeneration for as long as possible. If you are able to last for many more decades in good health, it gives you a better chance of accessing the future pharmaceutical interventions that will extend lifespan further than what is currently possible.
What does the best diet for longevity need to achieve?
1. Prevent disease.
The ability to prevent lifestyle driven diseases should be a hallmark of any longevity diet. It needs to show sufficient evidence across the board to reduce the risk of all major diseases.
2. Slow cellular aging.
Any effective longevity diet will slow down the signs of biological aging. Cellular death and DNA damage are two of the many mechanisms that need to be addressed.
3. Support physical fitness.
Getting adequate physical exercise is a big part of extending your lifespan. Following a diet that will allow you to regularly exercise and maintain strength as you age is vital.
4. Maximize cognitive function.
Keeping your brain free from dementia is one thing, but achieving optimal mental performance throughout the lifespan is another. Maximizing cognitive function will allow you to accomplish goals, feel fulfilled and make good decisions; all of which contribute to longevity.
5. Support daily wellbeing.
Feeling healthy on a day-to-day basis can help you manage distress, feel gratitude, focus on community and generally feel happy. If you feel sick and tired, you’re going to spend too much time in misery or thinking about yourself.
What methods can we use to assess dietary efficacy?
1. Studying studies.
Looking at studies will give us the clearest indication of how diet can be effective in the short, medium and long term. Large population ‘epidemiological’ studies can be used to prove long-term correlations. In contrast, randomized controlled trials are short-term but high-quality indicators of how dietary intervention impacts health.
The only way to get the full picture is by conducting an unbiased large scale analysis. Accepting opposing opinions and being open minded are key.
2. Finding trustworthy sources.
Listening to voices you can trust is vital. Many people in the health and wellness space are out to make a quick buck at the expense of everyone’s health.
It’s important to listen to all opinions and make judgements based on a wealth of information. Listening to only viewpoints that support your own hypothesis is unlikely to find the right conclusion.
3. Personal experience.
Spending time testing how a specific diet impacts your individual biology should be a part of any long-term strategy. This includes testing health markers and assessing how you feel on a holistic level.
Listening to your own body should not be underestimated. If you feel like crap, is it really a viable diet for long-term health? Probably not.
Why is a vegan diet best for longevity?
Vegan diets prevent disease
When it comes to preventing lifestyle driven disease; nothing beats a vegan diet. It’s been proven, through a robust range of long and short-term studies, to be great for avoiding most of the major diseases that can shorten lifespan.
Let’s start by talking about the number one killer across most of the western world; heart disease. The data shows that a whole-foods vegan diet can significantly reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular issues. In fact, eating a plant-based diet has even been shown to reverse heart disease. Amazing.
Meta-analysis has also shown a vegan diet to reduce cancer risk by 15%. Studies have also proven that it’s a great preventative measure against diabetes and could even lower your risk of dementia by up to 38%.
The mechanisms by which a vegan diet reduces risk of major diseases are obvious upon review. It reduces blood pressure, reduces LDL cholesterol, lowers blood glucose levels and helps you to maintain a healthy body weight. All of these are risk factors for early mortality.
I could offer a seemingly endless list of benefits backed by studies on this topic, but I think my point has already been proven. Based on the data I’ve seen; a vegan diet is the best way to avoid lifestyle driven disease, leading to a potential increase in lifespan.
Vegan diets can slow down the cellular aging process
The cellular aging process is something that is still on the cutting edge of science and we still have a lot to learn. However, one thing is certain: What we eat is a key indicator of how quickly we age.
One of the most well-known and reliable ways to measure aging is through telomere length. It’s a test to see how much of the protective layer around your DNA strands has diminished and is a great way to predict biological age.
Although studies in this area are harder to find; we do have clinical trial data showing that a plant-based diet can slow the aging process. In a study conducted at the University of California; researchers found that a vegan diet significantly increased telomere maintenance. In a follow up study, they found that telomeres had actually increased in relative length after 5 years.
Vegan diets have also shown in animal models to inhibit the IGF-1 and TOR pathways in the body. These pathways are thought to be a pacesetter in regulating lifespan, with animal proteins appearing to accelerate this process.
Further animal studies have also shown that a low methionine diet is also beneficial to longevity and cellular aging. It’s an amino acid that is found predominantly in animal products. Following a vegan diet is being touted as the best way to restrict this amino acid.
It’s clear that much of the science in this area is still progressing, but it looks extremely promising. Further human studies are still required to prove many animal-derived theories, but I’m hedging my bets that plant-based is the best way to slow the aging process.
Vegan diets promote caloric restriction
Very few interventions have shown promise in delaying the aging process like caloric restriction. It has almost universally been shown to prolong longevity in a range of organisms, including rhesus monkeys.
The mechanisms behind why caloric restriction extends lifespan are still largely debated. It’s inhibition of the TOR pathway, effect on growth hormone signaling and impact on our circadian clock have all been discussed and widely agreed upon as promising. The reduction in disease onset that can be achieved by restricting energy intake is also a factor.
The chronic restriction of calories can be difficult to achieve in the modern world of refined foods and animal products. However, the characteristics of a vegan diet make it a natural fit for those looking to reduce energy intake.
Eating plant-based whole-foods that’s high in fibers will keep you feeling full and satiated for longer and naturally reduce calorie intake. This in turn will naturally improve your chances of caloric restriction without the need to plan your meals.
Vegan diets support regular physical activity
Studies consistently show that regular physical activity increases life expectancy. One of the key words in that sentence is ‘regular’, meaning that your exercise should be performed at frequent intervals.
Research indicates that a plant-based diet has the ability to speed up recovery following exercise. It does this by reducing inflammation, increasing blood flow and improving heart health. More on these effects can be found in our article outlining ‘the vegan running diet’.
The main benefit that can be attained from expedited recovery time is the ability to perform physical activity with greater frequency. It can help to reduce the feelings of muscle soreness and fatigue that often follow exercise.
Speaking anecdotally: Vegan diets are often touted as energy promoting due to the comparatively easy digestibility of plant foods. Many report to feel much ‘lighter’ than if they had eaten a meal that included animal products.
Having a more energetic feeling throughout the day will increase your desire to remain activity throughout the day. In addition, eating a diet that promotes chronic inflammation is closely linked to fatigue. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that a whole-foods vegan diet, which is anti-inflammatory in nature, will help to maintain energy levels.
Vegan diets can improve cognitive function
Evidence to support the benefit of a specific dietary intervention to improve cognition is sparse. Research is often centered around dementia, with studies going back to the 1990’s showing the benefits of a plant-based diet for delaying the onset of cognitive decline.
However, we do have some evidence that a vegan diet can improve cognitive functioning. A recent study completed in 2020 found evidence to suggest that a plant-based diet related to improved cognitive functioning, especially through improved executive control.
The team hinted that benefits such as reduced inflammation could be the reason for this finding. Since the brain is highly glucose dependent; providing adequate fuel in the form of whole-plant foods should give it the energy required to function at a high level.
Other studies have seen a clear correlation in higher consumption of plant flavonoids leading to reduced cognitive decline. We also know that eating larger amounts of nuts, fruits and vegetables is positively associated with cognitive ability.
My view is that the overall data I have included supports the theory that a vegan diet is can improve cognitive function. It has been shown to boost mental performance in the short term and delay decline long-time. It’s a ‘win-win’ situation.
Vegan diets can improve your daily wellbeing
The path to longevity is one that’s trodden on a day-to-day basis. You need to feel great in order to consistently do the things required for overall wellbeing.
Stress management is one of the things that is strongly associated with increased lifespan. Fortunately, we do have study data that suggests a plant-based diet might be the answer.
One study found that vegans reported less stress and anxiety in comparison to their omnivorous counterparts. In addition, they also found that a less animal food intake was associated with better mood.
Given that we know stress to be correlated with a decrease in lifespan, it’s obvious why the daily mental benefits of a vegan diet are so appealing. It’s also great to know that going plant-based can make life more enjoyable in the short-term, rather than just suffering in the hope of reaching old age.
Top tips for a successful vegan longevity diet
1. Eat whole-foods.
Avoiding animal products is only half the battle. Make sure you keep the processed vegan junk food to a minimum if longevity is the goal.
2. Learn how to optimize a vegan diet for longevity.
The nutrition industry is built to confuse, but knowledge is power. Learn about different food groups and how they relate to longevity so you can make intelligent decisions.
3. Make the right choice most of the time.
Don’t sacrifice good for perfection. Make the best food decisions you can on a daily basis by being prepared and making the healthy choice easy. However, if you make a mistake, don’t punish yourself.
4. Get the key nutrients.
Plant-based diets can be incredibly healthy, but it’s still easy to miss a few key nutrients. Make sure you’re eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans to get the full spectrum.
5. Supplement if necessary.
Vegan diets are inherently deficient in vitamin B12, so it’s best to supplement. In addition, you may consider adding vitamin D, K2, DHA/EPA and iodine among others.
6. Eat enough food, but not too much.
Although caloric restriction is good for longevity; starving yourself is not. Look to eat an amount that helps you maintain a healthy body weight while still regularly getting into a calorie deficit.
7. Listen to your body.
If you feel like crap; you’re probably not doing yourself much good. Keep in mind that a little bit of discomfort at times is good (e.g. exercise, fasting), you should generally feel great.
8. Longevity is more than just diet.
Any longevity strategy should encompass all elements of life. Exercise, sleep, community and stress management are also vital aspects. A vegan diet alone is unlikely to achieve your desired outcome.
The purpose of this article is to relay why I’ve come to the conclusion that a vegan diet is good for longevity. It’s based on my own interpretation of research, data, anecdotal evidence, deep thought and personal experience.
In my personal life; I practice what I preach in this article. I eat an entirely vegan diet that would be defined as whole-foods plant-based.
My diet generally consists of large quantities of vegetables, nuts, seeds, tofu, beans and legumes. I drink plenty of green smoothies and eat huge bowls of salad.
My experience has been positive, although I cannot provide you with long-term data until I reach old age. I feel energetic, have the ability to perform well in every task and my health markers are superb.
I’m not here to push you in any direction, but rather to state my case and share my experience. Hopefully it’s given you the motivation required to make changes in your diet, or help you to feel reassured if you’re already on this path.
Is a vegan diet best for longevity? Clearly the data seems to point in that direction. However, you still need to have the right approach if you want it to work for you.
If you agree that a plant-based life is the key to longevity, then you’re probably on the right path. But the key to a long and healthy life often lies in making the right decisions consistently. Diet is no different.
Ingesting a wide variety of plant foods on a daily basis will give you the best chance of beating disease, slowing decline and feeling fantastic. Choose to eat real whole-foods whenever possible and make the right choices one meal at a time.
Once you have a longevity strategy, you can focus on optimizing your life day-by-day. Allow yourself to dream of the future, but try to stay in the present.