Seems like a new study comes out everyday telling us what to eat, drink do -- it's enough to make your head spin. Deep breaths. Here's what experts say has true staying power, and how to easily follow their insights.
In the way that you eat, that is. Focus your foods around whole grains, fruits and veggies, legumes, and nuts; have fatty fish like salmon at least twice a week; and limit red meat to once a week. "A Mediterranean-style diet lowers the risk of both heart disease and diabetes, probably because it's so high in polyphenols and 'good' monounsaturated fats," says Michael Roizen, M.D., chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic. A Harvard study published in February found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet had a 43 percent lower risk of weight gain and a 35 percent lower risk of developing metablic syndrome (a condition that ups the risk of both type 2 diabetes and heart disease).
Remember less as the years go by? You're not imagining things: Your memory declines about 2 percent each decade because your hippocampus (the part of your brain that stores memories) literally shrinks. But you can even the playing field by keeping up with regular exercise, says neurologist Majid Fotuhi, M.D., Ph.D., director of NeurExpand Brain Center, and author of Boost Your Brain. "A third of your brain is made up of blood vessels, so it makes sense that your physical fitness impacts your brain health," Fotuhi says. "Research shows that after a yearlong exercise program, the size of the hippocampus increases by about 2 percent, which effectively reverses age-related brain loss."
This trio is particularly rich in flavonoids, and a study done in the UK of nearly 2,000 healthy women shows that those who had the highest flavonoid intake had lower levels of insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. What's more, flavonoids can help reduce inflammation, which is associated with a host of diseases including cancer, says endocrinologist Florence Comite, M.D. Tea and berries won't wreak havoc on your healthy eating efforts, but keep the chocolate in check. Look for bars that are at least 70 percent cacao, and aim to eat no more than one ounce, (usually a small square) daily.
The more you sit, the greater your health risks -- even if you regularly hit the gym. Case in point: A Kansas State University study published last year found that men who sat more than four hours a day were much more likely to report having a chronic disease such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure. "One theory is that sitting for long periods reduces blood flow to the brain and heart," says David Katz, M.D., Ph.D., of the Yale Prevention Research Center.
Research shows that being plugged in 24/7 stresses us out: "If you're compulsively checking e-mail, you're more likely to ruminate about work-related issues, and you're not connecting face-to-face with family and friends," says Bruce Rabin, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Healthy Lifestyle Program at the University of Pittsburgh. In fact, studies show people who surf the Web and/or text within two hours before bedtime report higher stress levels than those who tune out of the cybersphere.
Spinach, kale, chard, and other leafy greens have the highest amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants that studies show protect your eyes against diseases such as cataracts or macular degeneration. "They seem to shield your eyes from harmful UV rays," notes nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., author of Age-Proof Your Body. Other good sources include egg yolks, corn, orange peppers, kiwi, grapes, and zucchini.
"It's not about BMI anymore -- all the reasearch now shows that the biggest health risk is belly fat," says Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. To keep disease risk low, experts say a measurement of under 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men is best. Research has found that women who have waists over 37 inches have an 80 percent higher risk of various conditions, including heart disease and cancer. The best way to keep your number in check: Regular exercise -- ideally, 45 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity three times a week, and three 15-to-20-minute sessions of resistance training.
"Doctors used to recommend them carte blanche, but then we realized they aren't necessarily right for everyone," Katz says. And some research has suggested there may be drawbacks: For example, the Iowa Women's Health Study showed that women who took multivitamins faced a slightly higher risk of death than those who didn't. As long as you eat a well-balanced diet that includes at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, you're most likely fine, Katz says. If you can't swing the five, try a whole food-based supplement, which is a powder concentrate of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. That way, you get the foods closer to their natural state, as well as antioxidants and nutrients not found in a multi.
About 60 percent of us have too-low levels of vitamin D, finds study after study, and that's been linked to a higher risk of many diseases. At your next checkup, have your levels tested so you can figure out how much D you need to take. While you can get some D from foods, it's usually not enough: Three ounces of salmon has 447 IU, a cup of fortified OJ about 137, and a cup of nonfat milk about 115. Because vitamin D is fat-soluble, experts advise taking it with a meal containing fat, ideally the largest meal of the day. You should also consider taking omega-3 fatty acids because research has linked them to so many key benefits, from a lower risk of heart disease and cancer to a better mood. "I recommend krill oil supplements, which tend to be easy on the stomach," Katz says.
While water is crucial for your overall health, the good news is you don't have to schlep a water bottle everywhere. "There's an often-repeated standard to drink eight glasses of water daily, but it's unclear where that came from," says Stanley Goldfarb, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In Goldfarb's review of 27 studies, he found no research to support the claim that forcing down more water than you would drink normally flushes your body of toxins, improves skin tone, or helps you lose weight. "Let thirst be your guide," says Goldfarb. "If you're healthy, there's no reason to drink extra water." Also, fruits and veggies, iced coffee, and tea can help you hydrate. Studies show that if you have caffeine regularly, your body adjusts, and it doesn't have a significant diuretic effect.