Optimal Diets for Longevity: The Science, Not the Hype

The conversation regarding what constitutes the ideal diet for optimal wellness and longevity is an ongoing and exhausting debate. Experts from each respective dietary camp have a plethora of data pointing to their case for why their particular system is the gold standard.
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The conversation regarding what constitutes the ideal diet for optimal wellness and longevity is an ongoing and exhausting debate. Experts from each respective dietary camp have a plethora of data pointing to their case for why their particular system is the gold standard. But so far, this ongoing debate has not been productive for the general public. There seems to be more confusion than ever before. Perhaps this is because a one-size-fits-all approach does not work.

On November 16, the Center for Obesity, Assessment, Study and Treatment (COAST) at UCSF hosted the leading scientists on diet and longevity to try a new approach. While the traditional format has been a debate-style panel discussing the best diet for health and longevity, COAST sought to identify the common thread between all these different diet styles, and further, to explore the influence lifestyle changes have on longevity.

The discussion kicked off with Dr. Lynda Frassetto, internist and kidney specialist at UCSF Medical Center. Frasetto focused on the benefits of a low-acid diet, consisting of vegetables, some fruits, nuts, and lean meat, as a beneficial solution for people with Type 2 diabetes and for optimal kidney health. She presented her research on the benefit of a low-acid Diet (Paleolithic-like), concluding that even short-term consumption of a Paleolithic-like diet "improves blood pressure and glucose tolerance, decreases insulin secretion, increases insulin sensitivity and improves lipid profiles without weight loss in healthy sedentary humans."

While some may consider the phrase "healthy sedentary human" to be a bit of an oxymoron, the study found significant changes in health markers without the intervention of exercise. During the Q&A period, she acknowledged that the diet she studied in her research on the Paleolithic diet contained no red meat, even though meat features prominently in most Paleolithic diets.

The second presentation was by Dr. Stephen Phinney, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at UC-Davis. Dr. Phinney presented his view on "The Art and Science of Nutritional Ketosis." Phinney defined the meaning of true nutritional ketosis as your body reaching a state of utilizing ketones for fuel in the brain and muscles instead of carbohydrates. This diet trend has become popular with a number of high-performance athletes and ultra-marathon runners who become ketoadaptive and burn ketones as their primary fuel source. Phinney's research on low-carbohydrate living showed that a very-low-carbohydrate diet had two major effects: (1) a reduction in plasma-saturated fatty acids despite a high intake of fat, and (2) a decrease in overall inflammation. According to Phinney, both of these results are beneficial for prevention and reversal of metabolic syndrome.

The third and final speaker was Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and clinical professor of medicine at UCSF. Dr. Ornish emphasized "lifestyle changes," including diet, for longevity and disease prevention. The Ornish program emphasizes a plant-based diet high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and very low in animal products and refined carbohydrates. In addition to dietary changes, the program incorporates exercise, stress reduction, mindful eating practices, and community support. Dr. Ornish's Spectrum Diet allows you to personalize a way of eating and living that's just right for you -- rather than a one-size-fits-all.

Dr. Ornish is renowned for the success of his program in reducing not only biomarkers such as cholesterol, but also actual prevention and reversal of heart disease. He also directed the first randomized controlled trial demonstrating that comprehensive lifestyle changes may slow, stop or even reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer. The Ornish program is the first lifestyle program to be covered by Medicare- - a huge win for the wellness, nutrition, and preventative medicine communites.

In his lecture, Dr. Ornish emphasized the importance of scientific studies that actually measure the degree of heart disease, not just risk factors like cholesterol and blood pressure. He cited a study from the New England Journal of Medicine reporting that mice fed a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet showed significant blockages in their coronary arteries; those fed a typical American diet had moderate blockages in their arteries; and those fed a diet similar to one recommended by Dr. Ornish had essentially clean coronary arteries.

Another interesting point that was made was the notion that how you eat your food is just as important as what food you eat. This practice, often called "mindful eating," focuses on eating with more pleasure, which can result in fewer calories consumed. This is a popular area of study for COAST, with a recent study finding that the more mindfulness around eating increased and stress went down, the greater the decrease in abdominal fat among women.

The takeaway, summarized by Ornish, was that all three speakers agreed that a whole-foods diet low in sugar and refined carbohydrates is optimal. However, Dr. Ornish added that an optimal diet is also rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and soy products in their natural forms. "There are hundreds of thousands of protective substances in these foods -- what you include in your diet is as important as what you exclude," he said.

A special thanks to Dr. Elissa Epel at COAST for bringing these distinguished doctors together. COAST is a multidisciplinary research center whose mission is to reduce the prevalence and adverse consequences of obesity, to seek and advance knowledge and understanding of the mechanisms by which stress influences obesity, and to develop effective interventions.

The seminar was video taped and will available to view in January.

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