Published 17th March 2022

How eating for your body can help you stay healthier for longer

What you eat plays a key role in how well you age. Getting the right nutrition can lower your risk of many age-related diseases and help you to live an enjoyable life for as long as possible. 

Life expectancy is increasing globally, but a longer life — or greater longevity — doesn’t necessarily mean a healthier one. 

At ZOE, we run the largest study of nutrition and gut health in the world, with over 15,000 participants so far. Our research shows that everyone — even identical twins — respond differently to foods.

To age healthily, it’s important to eat good quality, natural food. But the best foods for your body are unique to you. 

ZOE’s at-home test analyzes your individual responses to foods, which can impact your long-term health. With the ZOE program, you can find the best foods for you at your current life stage.

You can take a free quiz to find out more. 

Read on to learn about which foods and other lifestyle changes can help you stay healthier for longer — and why. 

How what you eat affects your health as you age

At ZOE, we’ve closely studied the impact of eating foods that aren’t good for your body. 

These negative effects include changes to the molecules in your blood, feeling hungry more often, and increases in markers of inflammation. 

When you hurt yourself or get sick, inflammation can be a good thing that protects you and helps you to heal. But ongoing levels of inflammation can be damaging. 

Over time, the negative effects of eating foods that aren’t good for you can increase your risk of long-term health conditions, like heart disease and diabetes, and can also lead to weight gain. 

The gut microbiome

Your gut plays an important role in the way your body responds to food.

The community of bugs that live in your gut is known as your gut microbiome. A wider range of different beneficial gut bugs is good for you.

In our research, we found 15 “good bugs” that are linked with better health and 15 “bad bugs” linked with worse health. 

The bad bugs are associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and excess belly fat.

The good news is that you can change your gut microbiome through your diet by including foods that help beneficial microbes grow in your gut.

With the ZOE at-home test, it’s possible for the first time to discover which of the “good” and “bad” bugs live in your gut and what your personalized “gut booster” foods are that can help your “good” bugs to thrive.

Blood sugar and blood fat responses

When you eat, your body breaks down carbohydrates into a simple sugar called glucose, and it breaks down fats into triglycerides. 

As the name suggests, blood sugar, or blood glucose, is the sugar that’s found in your blood. After you eat, your blood sugar rises. In the hours that follow, it falls again. Big spikes and dips — or “crashes” — in blood sugar are not good for your health. 

ZOE’s research has shown that the way our bodies respond to food changes with age, especially among women. Our data show that on average, women experience larger post-meal blood sugar spikes as they get older. 

Blood fat is the term for the level of triglycerides in your blood. Generally, it takes 6–8 hours for your body to clear fats from your blood. Blood fat responses vary between individuals and are a good indicator of your risk of developing heart disease

If your blood fat levels peak too high or stay high for too long, it can increase inflammation. Over time, this can damage your arteries, raise your risk of conditions such as heart disease, and impact your long-term health.

Measuring how the levels of sugar and fat in your blood change after eating, and how long it takes them to return to normal levels, can help you understand how your metabolism works. 

You can then use this knowledge to choose foods that keep your blood sugar and blood fat levels more stable. 

Everyone is different

Data from ZOE’s PREDICT research program shows that everyone's responses to food are different. It’s important to understand these responses because they can have an impact on your health in later life.

The ZOE at-home test can tell you about your personal blood sugar and blood fat responses to food, as well as the unique makeup of your gut microbiome.

With the ZOE program, you can find the best foods for your body and your long-term health.

5 Nutrition tips for healthier aging

Although understanding your personal responses to food is the best approach to nutrition, there are some general guidelines you can follow to improve your overall health and reduce your risk of age-related diseases. 

1. Eat more plants

Plants are high in fiber, which feeds your gut bacteria, but it’s also important for normal bowel function and for preventing constipation. 

Brightly colored plants contain a type of antioxidant called a polyphenol. As well as providing fuel for your “good” gut bugs, polyphenols have been linked to a reduced risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

Try to “eat the rainbow” by mixing and matching different colored plants.  

ZOE scientific co-founder Prof. Tim Spector — a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London — recommends aiming for 30 different plant foods each week.

Research has found that people who do this have a more diverse (and therefore healthier) mix of gut bugs than those who eat fewer than 10 different plants a week.

Although 30 may sound like a lot of plants, remember that it’s across all 7 days of the week and can include things like nuts and seeds, as well as vegetables and spices. 

Even if you don’t manage 30 plants right away, adding more to your diet is good for your health.

2. Eat probiotic and prebiotic foods

Research suggests that aging can negatively affect your gut microbes. To help with this, you can look after your gut by eating prebiotics and probiotics.

Probiotics are live bacteria, like those that live in your gut, and scientists believe that they have health benefits. You can get probiotics from fermented foods

Popular fermented foods include fermented vegetables like kimchi or sauerkraut, dairy products such as kefir, swiss cheeses, and live yogurt, and fermented tea called kombucha. 

Prebiotics are a type of fiber that fuel “good” bacteria, so they’re important if you want your “good” gut bugs to thrive. You can find prebiotics in foods like onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, and bananas.

You need to eat both probiotics and prebiotics regularly — ideally on a daily basis — if you want to see the benefits.

3. Eat healthy fats

Poor quality or saturated fats are associated with heart disease. However, your body needs fats to function properly.

They are an important source of energy, support cell growth, help absorb some nutrients, and produce important hormones. 

Try to swap animal fats, like those in processed meats, butter, and cream, for healthier plant sources of fat, such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and extra virgin olive oil.

4. Drink less alcohol

Aging can lower your body’s alcohol tolerance. And drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of conditions like high blood pressure, cancer, liver disease, and stroke. 

However, at ZOE, we don’t believe in cutting anything out completely, and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise that alcohol can be enjoyed in moderation. 

In fact, research has found that moderate amounts of red wine may even have some health benefits, possibly by improving your gut health.

5. Follow a Mediterranean-style diet

The Mediterranean diet is an eating pattern that includes many plant-based foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil. 

Red meat, unhealthy fats, and processed foods are eaten infrequently, and wine — primarily red wine — is consumed in moderation. 

Studies have found that the Mediterranean diet is associated with better health during aging and a lower risk of several age-related diseases.

Drinking moderate amounts of red wine as part of the Mediterranean diet may also be good for reducing heart disease. 

Other lifestyle changes to help with aging

Eating the right diet is crucial for healthy aging. But there are other lifestyle changes you can make, too: 

  • Staying active. Aging is associated with less physical activity and a subsequent decline in muscle mass and muscle strength. Lack of exercise is also linked to an increased risk of many diseases that occur in later life, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Avoiding smoking. Everyone knows the links between smoking tobacco and cancer, and it’s also a risk factor for heart disease. In fact, smoking is linked to a shorter life expectancy. But quitting can be hard. If you’re finding it difficult to stop smoking, talk to your doctor about the help you can get.

Summary

Getting older is unavoidable, but the right nutrition can help you age healthily, stay active, and enjoy life to its fullest. 

The foods you eat affect your blood sugar and blood fat control, as well as the health of your gut microbiome. Over time, negative responses to eating foods that aren’t good for your body lead to a buildup of inflammatory changes and can increase your risk of age-related health conditions. 

Eating more plants, adding fermented foods to improve your gut health, switching to healthy fats, and keeping your alcohol intake at a moderate level can all help.

However, ZOE’s research has shown that one-size-fits-all nutrition advice doesn’t work.

The ZOE at-home test helps you understand your unique metabolism and gut microbiome. Based on your unique results, you get personalized nutrition advice to find the best foods for you to support your overall health, whatever age you are. 

Find out more about what ZOE can do for you.

Sources

A daily glass of red wine associated with lifestyle changes independently improves blood lipids in patients with carotid arteriosclerosis: results from a randomized controlled trial. Nutrition Journal. (2013). https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-12-147

Ageing. (2022). https://www.who.int/health-topics/ageing#tab=tab_1 

American gut: an open platform for citizen science microbiome research. American Society for Microbiology. (2018). https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/mSystems.00031-18 

Dietary guidelines for Americans. (2020). https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans-2020-2025.pdf 

Effects of exercise and aging on skeletal muscle. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine. (2018). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC5830901/ 

Excessive alcohol use. (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/alcohol.htm

Fasting compared with nonfasting triglycerides and risk of cardiovascular events in women. JAMA. (2007). https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/208018

Gut microbiota and old age: modulating factors and interventions for healthy longevity. Experimental Gerontology. (2020). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0531556520304435

Impact of Mediterranean diet on chronic non-communicable diseases and longevity. Nutrients. (2021). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC8231595/ 

Mediterranean diet and the hallmarks of ageing. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2021). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41430-020-00841-x 

Older adults. (n.d.). https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/special-populations-co-occurring-disorders/older-adults 

Physical activity guidelines for older adults. American Family Physician. (2010). https://www.aafp.org/afp/2010/0101/p55.html 

Red wine consumption associated with increased gut microbiota α-diversity in 3 independent cohorts. Gastroenterology. (2020). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31472153/

Reduced or modified dietary fat for preventing cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. (2012). https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD002137.pub3 

The impact of cigarette smoking on life expectancy between 1980 and 2010: a global perspective. Tobacco Control. (2016). https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/25/5/551 

The pathophysiology of cigarette smoking and cardiovascular disease: an update. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. (2004). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0735109704004346