Would you rather add years to your life or life to your years? There are anti-aging foods that may help you do both.

Diet appears to play a role in free-radical damage (which alters cell functioning), inflammation, and gut bacteria. It also affects the length of telomeres­­—protective caps at the end of chromosomes. These factors can have an impact on conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, hypertension, respiratory disorders, cognitive decline, and infection.

“We’re trying to target the biology of aging to delay the onset of age-related diseases and extend the number of healthy, active, productive years,” says Nathan LeBrasseur, Ph.D., director of the Healthy Aging and Independent Living Program at the Mayo Clinic. “Diet can play a major role in that.”

Though following an overall healthy diet is most important, research suggests that incorporating certain anti-aging foods may give you an extra boost. Here, six foods to consider: 


Beans are rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and plant polyphenols that have protective benefits, especially for your heart. A large research review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating four half-cup servings of beans, peas, lentils, or tofu per week was linked to a 14 percent decrease in the risk of dying from ischemic heart disease (when the arteries of the heart become blocked). Beans are a good source of soluble fiber, too, which helps lower levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides. 

Hot Peppers

If you can tolerate them, chilies are good for your heart and waistline. A large study published in the journal PLOS One found that people who ate hot red-chili peppers regularly were 13 percent less likely to die from any cause over a 19-year period compared with those who didn’t.

Capsaicin, which gives peppers their heat, may also help improve blood flow, boost metabolism, and protect against bacteria that have been linked with inflammation and diseases.

“Inflammation is the nail in the coffin of conditions like heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and more,” says Carin Kreutzer, Ed.D., R.D., an assistant instructional professor of nutrition at the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “Many plant foods have phytochemicals that reduce the inflammatory response at the cellular level.”

In addition to green and red chilies, cayenne, jalapeño, and tabasco peppers all contain high levels of capsaicin. Sweeter peppers have less of that compound. 


Research suggests that nuts may be tiny packages of healthy goodness. For example, consider a New England Journal of Medicine study that followed almost 120,000 men and women for 30 years. Study volunteers who ate at least an ounce of nuts (about 23 almonds, 18 cashews, 12 macadamia nuts, or 14 walnut halves) daily had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from several conditions—especially cancer, heart disease, and respiratory problems—during the study period. Even those who downed nuts two to four times per week had a 13 percent lower risk of dying.

Nuts are high in monounsaturated fat, which helps lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Studies have also shown that their antioxidants may keep blood vessels supple (hardened arteries are a sign of heart disease) and improve the body’s use of insulin. Nuts have about 160 to 200 calories per ounce, but in the study above, frequent nut eaters weighed less than those who abstained.  


It really may be that good for you. A study of nearly 21,000 adults published in the journal Heart found that those who ate the most chocolate (½ to 3½ ounces daily) had a 25 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease and were 23 percent less likely to have a stroke over an 11-year follow-up period. Flavonoids in chocolate may improve blood-vessel function, which can lower blood pressure and clotting. It’s high in calories, sugar, and saturated fat, though. Dark chocolate has more flavonoids and less sugar than milk chocolate

Whole Grains

Despite carbs’ bad reputation in many circles, research shows that whole grains (instead of refined carbs like white bread and white rice) reduce your risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, infectious disease, and respiratory problems. A review of 45 studies found that people who ate seven daily servings of whole grains were far less likely to have those conditions or die from any cause during the study periods. Even one or two daily servings may have a benefit.

When it comes to anti-aging foods, whole grains are among the best. “They’re the total nutrient package,” says researcher Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., a distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. “They have antioxidants, B vitamins, fiber, polyphenols.” These substances, she says, help reduce heart-disease risks. 


Fatty fish is high in inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids, which may help protect the heart and brain. Some research has shown a significant 33 percent drop in the risk of sudden heart-attack death in people who ate two or more servings per week.

Some interesting preliminary research shows that people with cognitive impairments who supplemented with EPA and DHA—omega-3 fatty acids found in certain types of fish—had less telomere shortening over time, Kris-Etherton says.

Studies of supplements have had mixed results, and experts advise getting your dose with fish instead. Try for 8 ounces per week of sustainably farmed or wild-caught low-mercury fish, such as Atlantic mackerel, Pacific sardines, freshwater (farmed) coho salmon and wild-caught salmon, and sablefish (black cod) from Alaska. 

It’s Not Just What You Eat, It’s When

A new scientific statement from the American Heart Association suggests that certain diet habits show promise in helping to prevent heart disease and related conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. These include:

Intermittent fasting. Though more research is needed, studies suggest that severely limiting your calorie intake one or two days per week may help with weight loss and reduce triglycerides, blood pressure, and insulin resistance. “We’ve known for a long time that calorie restriction can delay the onset of age-related conditions and diseases. Now we have newer data on intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding that’s dramatic and promising,” LeBrasseur says.

Meal timing. Some studies suggest that people who consume most of their calories late in the day have a higher risk of obesity and heart disease. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming 50 percent of daily calories at lunch and 20 percent at dinner led to about a 33 percent greater weight loss than eating 50 percent at dinner. Similarly, restricting calories to a 10- to 12-hour period may be beneficial for dropping pounds.

Eating breakfast. It’s associated with a better blood glucose and insulin balance, which may lower type 2 diabetes and obesity risks.

Can These Foods Cost You Years?

Fill your plate with the following kinds of foods and you might hike your risk of heart disease, cancer, and a variety of other serious illnesses. Avoid or limit:

Charred meat: Studies have found that grilled or well-done meat creates compounds that have been linked to an increased risk of colon, pancreatic, stomach, and possibly other cancers.

Processed meats: Though red meat in general has been associated with an increased risk of colon cancer, salami, pepperoni, ham, and other cured meats may predispose you to esophageal, kidney, stomach, and prostate cancer.

Refined carbohydrates: Diets that are high in added sugars (candy, some cereals, pastries, sodas) and carbohydrates that have been stripped of many of their important nutrients (these are carbs such as white flour and white rice) may shorten telomeres and hike the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and stroke, especially in those who are overweight.

Prepackaged meals: These food products may be convenient but they're often extremely high in sodium. That has been linked to a higher risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2017 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.