So many people will say to me, ‘I don’t want to live that long.’” This is how leading longevity researcher Valter Longobegins our conversation. “They think that if they live to one hundred, they’re going to be very sick for the last twenty or thirty years of their lives. But data is showing this isn’t necessarily true. By intervening in the aging process, research suggests that you can live longer healthier.”
Longo is the director of the Longevity Institute at USC and of the Program on Longevity and Cancer at IFOM in Milan. As a sixteen-year-old, he moved to the US to study music and, well, become a rockstar. But Longo was raised in Italy, and the Italian approach to aging was more deeply ingrained in his consciousness than he realized. And along his path to becoming Mick Jagger, he made a left turn into biochemistry. He wanted to figure out the secrets to staying young.
For the past few decades, Longo has researched aging, nutrition, and disease around the world. He has come up with what he calls the five pillars of longevity—different disciplines for evaluating what works and what doesn’t. He has used these disciplines—juventology (the science of youth), epidemiology, clinical studies, studies of centenarians, the understanding of complex systems—to come up with his own nutrition program. His goal is to promote health at every age.
The plant-based pescaterian way of eating that he recommends is outlined in his book The Longevity Diet, along with a five-day Fasting Mimicking Diet (FMD) he created for use a few times a year. The FMD is what it sounds like—a temporary, tailored, calorie-restricted diet that makes the body think it’s fasting, for the potential regenerating effects Longo and others have identified. It does not promote the extreme deprivation of a true fast, which Longo points out can have damaging side effects. “The FMD gives us a chance to reset systems to better support the repair of age-related dysfunction,” he explains. In response to people continually asking Longo how to DIY the FMD, he set up a company, L-Nutra, which sells it in kit form—plant-based soups, bars, drinks, snacks, teas, and supplements. (If you get Longo’s book, don’t skip the opening note on proceeds and products, which is interesting in and of itself; he donates his shares in L-Nutra back into research, and same for his book royalties. You can check out Create Cures, the nonprofit research organization he founded to help patients identify integrative therapies, here.)
But you don’t have to have any kit, or the desire to fast in any form whatsoever, to take advantage of what Longo has learned about eating. “I preach eating more, but more of different types of foods. Once you identify the thirty to forty foods that work for you consistently, you don’t have to go around with a manual. You just eat.” He broke it all down for us, including why we should stop demonizing carbs, eat more protein, and carry a few extra lbs in our later years.
A Q&A with Valter Longo, Ph.D.
What everyday diet is best for maximizing healthspan?
A pescatarian diet is ideal. Aim to eat fish a couple of times a week, and then you want the rest of your diet to be primarily plant-based. Favor fish like salmon and avoid fish with high mercury content—like tuna, swordfish, mackerel, halibut. Over and over again, this has shown to be a highly nourishing diet.
Not Too Much Protein
Consume enough protein but don’t overdo it. It’s best to consult a registered dietitian to figure out the right amount for you as this varies. A rough rule is to consume .31 to .36 grams of protein a day, per pound of your body weight. So if you’re 130 pounds, that comes out to about 40 to 47 grams of protein each day. You want to consume the bulk of your protein—so about 30 grams in this case—in a single meal for muscle synthesis. Again, avoid animal proteins with the exception of fish and concentrate on vegetable proteins, like those from legumes, nuts, and so on.
Choose Good Carbs
Headlines often begin “low carb” or “high carb,” and when I talk about eating a diet relatively high in carbs, people often attack it. It’s not that simple—not all carbs, starches, and sugars are the same. If you look at centenarians in places where people live the longest, many eat a ton of carbs. For example, Okinawans get about 70 percent of their calories from purple sweet potatoes. That’s a good, highly nourishing complex carb.
You want your diet to be rich in complex carbs from vegetables, legumes, and whole bread. Keep the diet low in sugars and limited in pasta, rice, juices, and other carbs and starches that are easily converted into sugars. If you’re getting all of your carbs from foods that break down right away into sugar, it’s going to drive your weight up and cause insulin resistance.
“Headlines often begin ‘low carb’ or ‘high carb,’ and when I talk about eating a diet relatively high in carbs, people often attack it.”
A healthy, filling meal could consist of 50 grams of starches (pasta and rice), 300 grams of legumes (let’s say chickpeas), and 150 grams of vegetables. That’s a high carbohydrate dish, but it’s very different from eating 120 grams of white pasta—which turns very rapidly into sugar, and is hence metabolically like eating a big dish of sugar. (Note: People who suffer from intestinal inflammatory diseases need to speak to a specialist since they may have to avoid certain types of vegetables, legumes, and carbohydrates.)
The conversation shouldn’t be about low fat versus high fat—but about which type of fat and how much of each. You want your diet to be rich in beneficial unsaturated fats, like olive oil, salmon, walnuts, and as low as possible in saturated, hydrogenated, and trans fats. Fats should represent about 30 percent of your calorie intake, but keep in mind that a gram of fat has more than double the calories of a gram of carbohydrates or proteins.
Your body needs proteins, essential fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, and especially carbohydrates to function effectively. If you’re not getting enough nutrients, the body’s repair, replace, and defense systems can slow down or halt. Many people are lacking in essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12, omega-3 fats, or vitamin D, and may benefit from taking a multivitamin and/or omega-3 fish oil supplement.
How should our diet change as we age?
In one of our studies, people under the age of sixty-five did very well on a low protein diet but those over the age of sixty-five did poorly. As we get older, it becomes harder to process certain nutrients, and many people over the age of sixty-five start losing weight. In fact, carrying a few extra pounds in later decades seems to be protective against some age-related health concerns (which is the opposite of the case in our earlier years). So, if you’re losing weight and muscle after age sixty-five, increase your protein a little bit (likely around 10 to 20 percent). Start introducing more eggs, goat milk, a little more fish, maybe some white meat.
Why do you recommend eating during a certain window of time, and a certain number of meals?
I recommend eating in 12-hour windows. So, you might decide to eat between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., or 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
When people eat outside of that window (say, for 16 hours a day), we see more more metabolic disorders and sleep problems. Also, when you eat for more hours of the day, you tend to cumulatively eat more food.
There is some data (on mice) suggesting that eating the same amount in fewer hours, has beneficial effects on health. But I don’t recommend taking this to the extreme because we do see health issues with people who fast for longer (i.e. 16 hours a day)—such as increased gallstone disease. And skipping breakfast has been associated with mortality from cancer and cardiovascular disease.
There’s a lot of different information out there about how many meals you should eat each day. I don’t recommend eating five times a day like some have suggested, which usually means you are eating for a longer window of time and closer to bed. In the old days, people had dinner at 6 or maybe 7 or 8 p.m. and then that was it for the night. If you’re at a healthy weight, I recommend three meals a day, plus a snack.
What’s the connection between the Fasting Mimicking Diet and longevity?
Our animal and initial human research has shown that fasting (responsibly and smartly) can have positive effects on health by promoting regeneration in the body. The idea is that the body enters a more protective mode and prioritizes removing damaged cells and tissues and then stimulating self-repair. But not all diets currently being lumped under “intermittent fasting” are the same—or safe to do without very close medical supervision. The problem with many fasting interventions is that while they can do a lot of good, they can simultaneously have negative effects on the body, such as affecting normal sleeping or metabolic patterns. Also, if the fasting intervention is chronic, meaning it must be done once a week or more, most people are likely to abandon it in the long run, as with other everyday calorie restriction. I spent twenty-five years working on the periodic FMD because it’s just as important to not have side effects as it is to be able to maintain it for years and years. The FMD is a very specific diet that “tricks” the body into starvation mode, but gives you enough nourishment and fuel to prevent other health issues from being introduced.
“The problem with many fasting interventions is that while they can do a lot of good, they can simultaneously have negative effects on the body.”
In developing the five-day Fasting Mimicking Diet (FMD), we wanted to come up with a program that would be as effective as fasting, promote longevity, have a safe amount of calories, and not be too hard or unpleasant for people to complete. You’re eating less than usual on the program, but you’re still eating, and the average person would do it for five days only once every four months.
The FMD is based on our research, including three sets of data:
- We took middle-aged mice, and we put them on a variation of a fasting diet twice a month until they died. The fasting mice not only lived longer, but also lived much healthier for a longer period of time. Tumors were reduced and cancer onset was pushed back. Skin inflammatory diseases were reduced. Age-dependent loss of bone mineral density was reduced. Cognitive function improved (both learning and memory).
- In several other mouse studies, we looked at applying fasting to different diseases. We found evidence that periodic fasting could help clear away damaged cells and promote stem cell-dependent regeneration. So, during the fasting, the mice’s systems were focused on getting rid of junk. When they began to eat normally again, stem cells were essentially turned on that could rebuild and generate new, functional cells.
- Finally, we did a human clinical trial with about one hundred patients for six months and three cycles of a FMD. We saw a reduction of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high fasting-glucose, high triglycerides, and CRP levels (an inflammatory risk factor for cardiovascular disease).
For those interested: I recommend that people use the FMD tested clinically in the trial, which is available at prolonfmd.com. The FMD is powerful, and should only be done with what has been tested clinically and mostly under medical supervision by over 30,000 people.
How does the Fasting Mimicking Diet affect weight, if at all?
In the clinical trial mentioned above, obese subjects lost around 8 pounds. The FMD cycle targets visceral fat, which is essentially belly fat, and a central risk factor in the development of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. What’s interesting about the FMD is that while fat continues to be burned after people return to their normal diet, it doesn’t keep burning muscle, which is rebuilt once participants returned to the normal diet.
Why do you think the Fasting Mimicking Diet works?
I often use a train analogy: Old trains used wood for fuel. Let’s say a train was running out of fuel. The engineer could take wood pieces from the train—starting with damaged parts—and use them as fuel, which would make the train lighter in the process. When the train got to the next station, maybe 20 percent of the train would be gone and could be rebuilt to be brand new.
That’s similar to how the body works: It uses its own components for fuel, it tries to go after what’s damaged, but also probably kills some normal cells in the cleanup process. The FMD is a very specific diet that tricks the body into starvation mode by reducing proteins and sugars, which seems to encourage organs and systems to get rid of what is damaged or what they don’t need (proteins, mitochondria, and so on). In doing so, the FMD helps to save energy because the body needs to maintain fewer, less active cells. And once normal eating patterns resume, the body works to rebuild what was broken down or lost.