Have a Long and Awesome Life

Have a Long and Awesome Life

Joseph Darby

What happens when people eat right, maintain a healthy weight, exercise, and don’t smoke? They prevent 80% of heart attacks, 90% of type two diabetes, and significantly reduce the chance of cancer, dementia and pretty much every other bad thing you can think of.

Unfortunately, we’re not very good at eating right. When researchers have analysed the average New Zealand diet, they’ve reported it is not significantly different to the diet in other Westernised countries, and leads to high instances of cardiovascular disease – heart attacks.

Unfortunately, what we call “living life to the fullest” might also mean living it to its shortest. But it’s not all your fault. We get terrible information – when we get any clear information at all. Diet books are an appalling swamp of incorrect information, while much of the food industry spends billions to tell us that whatever they’re selling is good and the media loves promoting the latest one-off study as eternal truth (low fat, low carb, low sugar… you get the picture!).

Fortunately, there are basic laws that come with Mother Nature. Walter C. Willett, MD, has led the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health for over twenty-five years and is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. His book is “Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating.”

The Fundamentals of Living Long and Prospering

Let’s keep it simple and start with the ‘bottom line up front’.

  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Take it easy with fruit juices and corn. Skip the potatoes.
  • Eat more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat (mostly from plants) and less saturated fat (mostly from meat and dairy). Avoid artificial trans fats like they’re radioactive waste.
  • Eat more whole-grain carbs and fewer refined carbs. Yes, that means a lot less sugar.
  • No processed meat and less red meat. Choose fish, poultry, or nuts for protein sources.
  • Drink more water. Coffee is great. Tea is fine. Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda are bad. Go easy on alcohol. No more than two drinks a day for men, no more than one a day for women. Reduce milk consumption unless you’re a child or elderly.
  • Take a multivitamin for cheap insurance.

You’ve heard much of this before. It’s very similar to “The Mediterranean Diet.” That plan started with the work of Ancel Keys in the 1950’s when he did “The Seven Countries Study” which was the first big analysis of the link between diet and heart disease. He found that people in Greece and southern Italy that ate this way had crazily long-life expectancies as well as shockingly low rates of heart disease and cancer. Subsequent studies have shown this pattern of eating works for improving health in most everyone.


Alright, let’s make an (obvious?) little side note here to mention something that recent debate has rendered less obvious: weight matters. Eating healthy is vital but that doesn’t mean eating too much isn’t an issue and don’t let anyone tell you any different.

How much you weigh in relation to your height, your waist size, and how much weight you gain after your early twenties are strongly correlated with heart attack, stroke, cancer, blood pressure, diabetes… and pretty much everything. Too much food can be as bad as bad food.


Eating fat is not tied to heart disease or even to adding excess weight. If anything, it’s the reverse. People who eat a higher proportion of fat are often leaner and healthier. The fly in the ointment is the type of fat you eat.

Simply put: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, saturated fat is not good for you and artificial trans fats are absolutely terrible.

Artificial trans fats usually come in the form of partially hydrogenated oils. In English: avoid margarine, vegetable shortening, most doughnuts, pastries and cookies, powdered creamer, and the fats used for deep-frying fast food in restaurants. It’s so bad, in some countries types of artificial trans fats have already been banned due to health concerns. They up the chance of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and nearly everything.

Aside from avoiding trans fats altogether, many people try to replace fat with carbs but that’s not a great idea either. The goal is to replace saturated fat with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. What does that mean in English?

Replace red meat with poultry, fish, avocado, or nuts whenever possible. Use olive oil instead of butter or margarine. No, eggs aren’t bad. Walter says, “No research has ever shown that people who regularly eat eggs have more heart attacks than people who don’t eat eggs.”

And get those Omega 3 fatty acids. Salmon, trout, sardines, walnuts, flaxseed or supplements are great sources.

Carbohydrates ('Carbs')

Eat more whole grains. Reduce less refined carbs and sugar. Yes, that means fewer cake-based foods.

Long-term studies link refined carbs with increased risk of heart attack, stroke and so much diabetes it will give you diabetes.

Whole grains rule. Women who ate 2.5 servings a day of whole-grain breakfast cereals, brown rice, or whole-grain bread were 30% less likely to get heart disease than women who ate one serving a week. That’s a huge deal. Walter writes, “We estimated that eating a bowl of cold breakfast cereal that supplies about 5 grams of fibre cuts the chance of developing heart disease by about one-third compared with a fibre-free breakfast…”

You want any whole-grain food to have at least one gram of fibre for every 10 grams of carbs. That’s a lot, and probably a big transition for most of us.

So, what are you supposed to eat?

  • GOOD: Whole wheat, barley, wheat berries, oats, brown rice, quinoa, beans, and foods made with them.
  • PRETTY GOOD: Oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and some whole-grain crackers.
  • BAD: Sugar-sweetened soda and fruit juice, white rice, white bread, fries, baked potatoes, and pizza. Eat these with a side order of guilt.


You want to get more of your protein from plants, beans, nuts, fish, and poultry.

Eat too much red meat or processed meat and you may be sliding closer to cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer concludes that processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans,” and red meat is “probably carcinogenic.” And the saturated fat from red meat and processed meat contributes to heart disease and overall premature death.

So, reduce red meat, and cut out processed meat. (Yes, that includes bacon, in case you didn’t already hate reading this after the section on carbs!)

Fish, chicken, beans, and soybeans are all healthy protein sources. Nuts are really good. An ounce of them provides about 8 grams of protein, which is the same as a glass of milk. They’re loaded with fat – but it’s the good kind. The research on soy foods is conflicting but it’s definitely better than red or processed meat.

Fruits And Vegetables

Some things in nutrition are clear. Nobody ever said, “Don’t eat too many green vegetables.” Fruit and veggies are awesome.

Large meta-analyses link eating lots of fruit and vegetables with “lower risk of dying from any cause.” The most benefits were found when people ate five servings a day. And get a variety of them in your diet. Different fruits provided protection from different cancers, so mix them up – the more diverse the better! An easy way to do this is to eat fruits of various colours. While it sounds funny, the research shows it works.

Berries were shockingly beneficial, so we all must eat more of them. Meanwhile, potatoes and corn act more like refined carbs in your body and should be cut back.

One more thing to keep in mind here: smoothies are not the solution. Most of the time you just end up with more sugar and calories. The same goes for fruit juice. Eating fruits and vegetables reduced the chance of diabetes while drinking fruit juice increased it.


Surprisingly, the idea you need eight glasses of water a day does not hold water. You get a fair amount of the water you need from food. More water is, on average, good - but there’s no need to drive yourself crazy. Many people might need a lot less than eight glasses per day, while some of us need more.

Water should be your preferred drink of choice. Bottled is not necessarily better than tap. (Bottled doesn’t always meet the stringent guidelines that tap water has to.) In blind taste tests, people actually preferred tap to bottled, believe it or not.

Do we even need to say sugary soft drinks are bad? If so, here it is

“In a meta-analysis that included nearly 500,000 men and women followed for an average of twenty-two years, the risk of developing type two diabetes went up by 13 percent for each daily serving of sugar-sweetened soda or juice….”

Milk is great for kids and the elderly. Adults can overdo it. It contains a good deal of saturated fat and lots of calories. Most adults don’t need the extra calcium, so go easy.

Coffee is reportedly great. (Which we hope makes up for the news about bacon!) It has a long list of positives like lower incidence of diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, less liver cancer, reduced kidney stones and gallstones, and lower overall mortality. It even reduces depression. Though go easy on the sugar, milk, and so on. It’s coffee, not a hot milkshake.

Tea is nice but doesn’t deliver the mystical, quantum healing effects you might have heard. There’s no clear evidence for reduction of cancer. Heart disease results are mixed and contradictory.

Yes, in modest amounts, alcohol raises good cholesterol and reduces the chance of heart attack and stroke. And most of those results are seen exclusively in younger people. As you’d expect, drinking more than a modest amount increases liver disease, cancer, high blood pressure, bleeding strokes and so on. One drink a day for women, two for men is the healthy limit.

Should you swallow any vitamins with your beverages? There are a huge range of supplements available, reportedly with a huge range of pros and cons. According to the gurus from Harvard Medical School, unless you’re addressing a legitimate medical condition, the only thing you probably need is a daily multivitamin. Consider it cheap insurance. Making sure you get the basics (especially vitamins B6 and B12, folic acid, vitamin D, and beta-carotene) is helpful in preventing heart issues, cancer, memory loss and other chronic diseases.

(And, no, Vitamin C mega doses are not going to reduce your chance of getting a cold. They just make your urine more expensive.)

The Bottom Line: Live a Long and Healthy Life

How to get started may seem daunting and lead to enraged hyperventilation at all this information, and the revelation that bacon is bad for us. So here are a few easy ways to begin the transition:

  • Eat whole grain bread instead of white bread
  • Eat brown rice instead of white rice or potatoes
  • Use olive oil instead of butter or margarine
  • Use things like peanut butter and nuts instead of cheese
  • Snack on nuts instead of sweets
  • Eat beans, soy, fish, or poultry instead of red or processed meat
  • Make dessert plain yogurt with added fruit and nuts instead of ice cream

As is the case with many things in life, we probably know most of what we need to do. The tricky part is setting our mind to it and getting in a good routine of doing the right thing!

Eat right, live longer and feel better.

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