#212 The 7 Foods That Determine Your Lifespan

The 7 Foods That Determine Your Lifespan

New research shows that there are 7 foods that account for half of all deaths.  In this article, I discuss these 7 foods that determine your lifespan.

Foods That Determine Your Lifespan Study

As you may have seen, this recently published study gathered a lot of media attention.  The reason for this is because no other study has ever demonstrated that half of all deaths can be narrowed down to just a small number of foods.

The senior author on this study was cardiologist, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, from Tufts University in Boston. Dariush and I worked together as medical residents at Stanford University 22 years ago.

To identify these 7 foods that were responsible for so many deaths, Dr. Mozaffarian and colleagues studied the diets of 702,308 people who had died.  Below are the top 7 foods that determine your lifespan according to their study.

1. Excessive Salt from Processed Foods: 9.5% of Deaths

Dr. Mozaffarian and his team identified 2,000 mg of sodium as the number that put people at risk.  When I speak with patients about salt, they are usually quick to tell me that they never use the salt shaker.  Personally, I would love to see my patients use the salt shaker more as this would mean that they are spending more time cooking real food at home.

The problem isn’t the salt shaker but rather processed and prepared foods.  Approximately 80% of the sodium most people get every day comes from processed foods, prepared foods, or fast foods.  For example, a few slices of bread, a slice of pizza, or eating out for lunch could easily put you past the 2,000 mg level of sodium.

Thus, even though the researchers blamed salt as the number one killer, I really don’t think it was the salt.  Anyone eating a high salt diet is also eating a lot of processed foods and fast foods.  While there is a lot of salt in these foods, there is also a ton of sugar, unhealthy oils, and other chemicals and preservatives as well.

2. Not Enough Nuts and Seeds: 8.5% of Deaths

When it comes to the number two dietary factor that kills people, this study recommends that you eat at least 20 grams of nuts or seeds each day.  Twenty grams works out to be just under an ounce or a small handful daily.

While cutting back on salt from processed foods may be difficult, eating a handful of nuts or seeds should be something everyone looks forward to.  Personally, my struggle is not with eating enough nuts and seeds but that I want to eat too many nuts and seeds.

3. Eating Processed Meats: 8.2% of Deaths

For processed meats, there is no safe level according to the findings of this study.  The problem is that there is something about the curing or processing of meats that creates a risk to your health.

If you can’t live without your processed meats like deli meats, bacon, sausage, pepperoni, or hot dogs, then just consider processed meats as a rare treat.  Alternatively, it is possible that the uncured and nitrate-free varieties of these processed meats may not present the same health risk.  To find uncured and nitrate-free processed meats, try shopping at your local health food store.

4. Not Enough Omega 3 Fats: 7.8% of Deaths

Enough can’t be said about the health benefits of omega 3 fats.  These fats are very helpful in preventing cardiovascular disease and other conditions.

For this study, they defined not enough omega 3 fats as eating less than 250 mg of seafood based omega 3 fats daily.  If you consider that a single serving of salmon has about 1,500 mg of omega 3 fats, that works out to be one serving of salmon every six days.  Of course, to minimize mercury, PCBs, and other contaminants, eating wild fish, smaller fish, or ocean fish is a great approach.

In addition to getting enough seafood based omega 3 fats, this study also recommends replacing processed carbohydrates and some of the saturated fat in your diet with other omega 3 fats.  A great way to do this would be with the plant-based omega 3 fats found in walnuts, chia seeds, or flax seeds.

5. Not Enough Vegetables: 7.6% of Deaths

I was surprised to see not eating enough vegetables so low on this list.  In my experience as a cardiologist, this should be the thing people focus on the most.

For this study, Dr. Mozaffarian and his team defined not enough vegetables as eating less than 400 grams daily.  For people not accustomed to think of vegetables this way, 400 grams of vegetables works out to be five servings daily.

Perhaps the reason why vegetables didn’t rank very high had to due with where they drew the cut off.  For example, based on the study I discussed in blog 209, five servings of vegetables a day may not be nearly enough to see life extending benefits.

6. Not Enough Fruit: 7.5% of Deaths

Right up there with not enough vegetables was not eating enough fruit.  In this study, researchers defined not enough fruit as eating less than 300 grams daily.  For fruit, 300 grams translates to three servings daily.

7. Sugar Sweetened Beverages: 7.4% of Deaths

As with processed meats, there was no safe amount of sugar sweetened beverages.  Sugar sweetened beverages are defined as any drink with added sugar.  Thus, honey added to a drink would be considered a sugar sweetened beverage.  While 100% fruit juice doesn’t meet this definition, many now consider fruit juice a sugar sweetened beverage.

The problem with sugar sweetened beverages is that the body can’t control the sugar rush.  Your brain never registers these sugar calories as making you feel full.  Also, high levels of sugar in your blood damages your cells and takes about 10 years off your life.

What About Non-Processed Meats, Dairy, and Whole Grains?

While many popular diets would have you believe that all meat, dairy, or whole grains are evil, this study didn’t support any of these beliefs.  For non-processed meats, the risk was neutral.  In other words, non-processed meats didn’t extend life nor did it shorten life.

While dairy was not specifically evaluated in this study, other studies from Dr. Mozaffarian show that dairy is also neutral.  For whole grains, it is a different story.

In this study, eating whole grains was associated with a somewhat longer lifespan.  As there is so much confusion about what is a whole grain, I like to think of it in terms of an intact grain.  If a grain has been stripped of its fiber and nutrients, it is processed.  If it has been pulverized into dust-like flour, it is also processed.  In my opinion, as long as you are eating intact grains, you may live a longer life.

Take Home Message

The main take away from this study is that if you can follow these 7 eating strategies then half of the diseases that will kill you can be avoided.  When it comes to healthy eating, it is really quite simple.  Eat real foods, mostly plants.

What is your take on this study?  Do you agree with what they identified as the foods that determine your lifespan?

Please leave your thoughts and questions below.  As always, I’ll try to answer every question within 24 hours.  If you haven’t yet signed up for my free weekly newsletter or podcast, how about doing it now?

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    • Sadly, there is too much sugar in chocolate. Dark has much less sugar than milk chocolate but it is still too much. Cacau nibs are too bitter for me. Personally, I am switching to dark chocolate with stevia. Stevia has been around for centuries in South America and I can’t find any negative studies on it yet…


  1. I think knowing what constitutes a serving of veg. would be a good thing. I have no idea — cup?

    • Sorry…you must be outside of the US. A cup is the equivalent of a 237 mL container full of veggies. Hope this helps!