Hint: It’s a lot like the old way to eat, but bolstered by decades of research. We’re talking about going back to a time before meals were broken into carbs and calories, when food was a source of energy, sustenance, and pleasure that that kept your body going strong for a lifetime. These principles put the focus back on whole, seasonal foods -- and put happiness into every bite.
1. Expand your food horizons
The first “rule” of eating is not to rule anything out completely, be it dairy, fat, or sweets. Instead, go for a wide variety of whole foods that you truly love, prepared in delicious ways. “The happiest, healthiest people in the world don’t diet,” says Darya Rose, a neuroscientist and author of “Foodist” (HarperOne, 2013). “Nothing is off-limits to them, so they eat in a life-affirming way.” Similarly, rather than counting calories at each meal, Kathie Madonna Swift, an integrative clinical nutritionist and coauthor of “The Swift Diet” (Avery, 2014), suggests filling your plate with nutritious, colorful foods. “At least half of the circle should be vegetables, a quarter protein, and the other quarter a starchy vegetable or grain, like quinoa or barley. In the middle, add in healthy fats like nuts and seeds.”
2. Get satisfaction
Time and time again, studies have shown that when we eat what we want and slow down, turn off screens, and pay attention to tastes, smells, and textures, we feel sated long before overdoing it. Mindful eating feeds us emotionally, too, Swift says. “Time is a precious commodity, but we’ve got to rethink the conversation around food and bring soul nourishment, not just nutrition, back into it.” When you eat, take a break and break bread with a friend, coworker, or family.
4. Let things simmer
Slow food is superpowered food. “When you cook vegetables gradually, their flavors are fully released,” says Buettner. Better yet, “water-cooking methods -- steaming, making soups and stews -- preserve nutrients and don’t create glycation; when meat is cooked quickly at a high temperature, it produces toxins that increase inflammation in the body,” says Swift. So plug in a slow cooker, and if you grill often, marinate meat in an acid like vinegar or lime juice first: “It blunts production of some damaging molecules.”
5. See seafood differently
Fish is the original smart food. “It’s full of B12 and nutrients related to brain health,” says Swift. But given concerns like high mercury levels in larger species and overfished oceans, veer away from big guys like tuna and swordfish, and think smaller, as in whole sardines, anchovies, herring, or these simply roasted Spanish mackerel. (When in doubt, check your choices against the Marine Stewardship Council website: msc.org.) For convenience, try tinned varieties, too.
6. Wine is fine
If you uncork a bottle of vino now and then, there are some compelling reasons to continue. “The trick is to have it with a plant-based meal, because wine triples the uptake of certain nutrients, increasing the absorption of lavonoids,” says Buettner, who also found in his research that centenarians drink a glass or so a day, usually with friends. A dark-red varietal like Petite Sirah, Tannat, or Sagrantino is also high in the antioxidant anthocyanin.
8. Fill up on fiber
Yes, vegetables are brimming with antioxidants and vitamins. But the main reason to pile on fresh produce, says Swift, “is fiber. Ancestrally, we got 70 grams and up a day; today we get maybe 15.” The reality is that we need 25 to 38 grams a day. Fiber aids digestion and helps lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and inflammation. Go for local varieties when possible, and remember: “Foods that grow together taste good together,” she says. Which explains why tomatoes, eggplant, and basil make an amazing meal.
9. Finish strong
Before serving a simple side like this, add something that packs a wallop of satisfying flavor. Sprinkle on crunchy sea salt -- if you cook at home, it’s a lot harder to OD on sodium just by seasoning to taste. McDougall uses sugar as an accent, too: “Sixteen calories’ worth on your oatmeal is nothing,” he says. Shower food with one herb today, a different one tomorrow. “Diversity is key,” says Swift. “Parsley, cilantro, and basil all help detox the body.” Another tasty trick, says Rose, is to “add an acid, like lemon or vinegar.”
11. Take the spice route
“Turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cloves -- they’re good for your brain and gut, and anti-inflammatory,” says Swift. They’re also full of antioxidants, delicious, and easy to incorporate into every dish, from morning oatmeal to soup to stir-fries. Turmeric in particular, which contains the anti-carcinogenic compound curcumin, has been heating up studies lately. If possible, look for fresh turmeric root, which you can grate like ginger and sprinkle lightly onto sweet and savory dishes.
12. Lock it in for life
To eat well forever, not just for the moment, “focus on real food, and build habits around it,” Rose says. “Probably the most important one is to cook for yourself.” The next step is to figure out simple, good-for-you weekday meals that you enjoy enough to eat on the regular, and keep the fixings on hand. “If you nail breakfast and lunch daily, that’s a huge win,” says Rose. “Then if you cook dinner three or four nights a week and are fairly active, you’ll be healthier. It’s really hard to eat enough on a Saturday to undo all of that.”