Do One Thing for a Longer, Healthier Life

Do One Thing for a Longer, Healthier Life

Better health can be yours at any age. And it may be easier than you think to make the changes that will have a positive effect on your health.

We all know we should eat a healthy diet. But you may not know just how big an impact what you eat and drink has on your physical and mental health.

Research shows that a healthy diet helps prevent many serious diseases and helps you live longer. And just as important, it helps improve your quality of life — now and in the future.

For example, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) leaving site icon found a link between a healthy dietary routine and a reduced risk of death from any cause.

Research also shows that diet has a significant impact on mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

It’s never too late to start improving your diet. But the sooner you get started, the bigger impact the changes will have on your long-term health and quality of life.

What Is Healthy Eating?

Eating healthy means following an eating plan that includes a variety of nutritious foods and drinks. It also means getting the number of calories that’s right for you, says Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotionleaving site icon

Making smart food choices can also help you manage your weight and lower your risk for long-term, serious health problems, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Some kinds of cancer

But more than 80 percent of people in the U.S. aren’t eating enough vegetables, fruits and dairy, says the Food and Drug Administration. leaving site icon And most people eat too much added sugars, saturated fat and salt, according to the Dietary Guidelines for America, 2020-2025.

So what foods, and how much, should you eat? People have different nutritional needs at different stages in their lives.

Start Young

Eating healthy foods not only helps keep children healthier, it also builds habits they keep as adults that will help them stay healthier throughout their lives. A diet of healthy foods also helps stabilize their energy, improve their minds and even out their moods, says the American Academy of Family Physiciansleaving site icon

Make these easy changes to improve your child’s diet:

  • Drink sparkling or flavored water instead of soda.
  • Have whole wheat or other whole grain foods instead of white bread, pasta or other foods made with processed flour.
  • Try a fruity homemade smoothie instead of ice cream.
  • Snack on vegetables and fruit, baked chips, and nuts instead of potato chips or other high-fat, low-nutrition snack foods.
The Teen Years

About 20 percent of kids between 12 and 19 years old are obese. Small changes in eating habits and more exercise can help, says the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseasesleaving site icon 

Try these tips for teens:

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables at meals. And have them as snacks.
  • Get energy from low-fat, lean meats like turkey or chicken or other protein-rich foods like nuts, beans, tofu, seafood or egg whites.
  • Help build bones with fat-free or low-fat dairy products like milk and Greek yogurt. Or try lactose-free milk or soy milk with added calcium.
  • Avoid sugary beverages like sodas, presweetened tea and energy drinks. And try not to add sugar to foods and drinks.
For Adults

It isn’t necessary to stick to one, specific diet plan to have a healthy diet. But studies have shown leaving site icon that following a healthy eating plan like the DASH, leaving site icon MIND or Mediterranean leaving site icon diet can help adults of all ages maintain good long-term health and decrease the risk of death from many causes.

These diets also help lower the risk of health issues that come with aging, like high blood pressure and dementia, says the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

And the foods emphasized in these types of diets don’t just help your body. They can also help your mental health. Foods loaded with the vitamins and minerals to boost your mind include:

  • Oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, anchovies and sardines 
  • Broccoli and leafy greens like kale, spinach and romaine lettuce
  • Walnuts, sunflower seeds, chia seeds and flax seeds
  • Berries and dark-skinned fruit
  • Lentils, chickpeas and beans
  • Whole-grain rice, quinoa and oats
  • Avocados
Get Started

If your diet needs improvement, get started with these simple steps:

  • For snacks, choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats like nuts and seeds.
  • Eat more fish and seafood. Flavor them with herbs and spices rather than sauces.
  • Make vegetables and whole grains the base of your food plan instead of meat.
  • Avoid high-fat red meat and processed meats.
  • Cut back on foods with high salt levels and added sugars.
  • Enjoy sweets only as occasional treats.

Remember, making improvements to what you eat and drink can have a big impact on your health throughout your life. You can start small — just get started. Talk to your doctor about the dietary changes you’re making, especially if you have health issues or take medications that may be impacted by diet.

Sources: Association of Changes in Diet Quality with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality, leaving site icon New England Journal of Medicine, 2017; At any age, a healthy diet can extend your life, leaving site icon The Washington Post, 2022; Eat Healthy, leaving site icon Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2022; A Fresh Take on What "Healthy" Means on Food Packages, leaving site icon Food and Drug Administration, 2022; Nutrition Tips for Kids, leaving site icon American Academy of Family Physicians, 2022; Take Charge of Your Health: A Guide for Teenagers, leaving site icon National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 2016; Healthy Longevity, leaving site icon Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2022; Foods Linked to Better Brain Power, leaving site icon Harvard Health Publishing, 2021