An underrated way to live longer

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If people ate well and exercised, hospitals would be 80 per cent empty, according to Professor Luigi Fontana. Here, he summarises a presentation he delivered at the Australian Biology of Ageing Conference.


My assertion that hospitals being 80 per cent empty if people ate well and exercised may sound bold, but I have spent my career researching the impact of how we treat our bodies on the incidence of the most common chronic diseases. I have found that despite a view of diseases suddenly cropping up, they often develop in our bodies over decades. Therefore, they can often be prevented from occurring in the first place.

Heart attacks, for example, are often preceded by the build-up of plaque in arteries. And what causes plaque? Factors include smoking, high cholesterol, glucose and blood pressure. If we take a further step backwards, it is evident that individual choices can account for the presence of many of these factors.

Another example: lean people have lower levels of inflammation, oxidative stress and insulin. This means that their cells are better at removing waste products; they have increased DNA repair and antioxidant enzymes – molecules that protect cells from DNA and oxidative damage and proliferate less. Taken together, these circumstances lower the risk of cancer.

And – what is one thing heart disease, cancer, dementia, stroke, diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease have in common? Excessive calorie intake among their sufferers.

Even people who already have such diseases would do well to modify their diets. Though heart disease is the top cause of death in Western countries, patients can increase their life span by, on average, 11 years, if they have optimal cardiometabolic risk factors.

The choice to eat healthily (or not) begins to produce effects as early as prenatally. An expectant mother’s diet can shape a foetus’s genes through epigenetics. This, in turn, also affects future generations’ predispositions to disease.

Calorie counting and more
Not all calories are equal. As the above heart attack example illustrates, it’s not enough to simply not be overweight. With food, quantity and quality are essential. To optimise our bodily health, we should:

  • substitute refined and processed foods with plenty of those rich in vegetable fibre – which helps prevent allergies and autoimmune diseases
  • stop eating when we are 80 per cent full
  • eat most of our food in a restricted time frame, for example, 10 hours, with a very light dinner
  • once or twice a week eat only non-starchy raw or cooked vegetables dressed with extra-virgin olive oil
  • watch our protein intake as studies have shown that in mice, high-protein diets shorten lifespans.

Exercise is also critical. In fact, in certain ways, it is more powerful than diet, for instance, in lowering insulin resistance. High insulin resistance is associated with Type II diabetes and heart disease. Exercise has a myriad other benefits, including boosting mood and helping with sleep.

Our bodies, others
Whether or not this food-first approach is favoured, our current health system is at breaking point. No doubt, for example, you’ve heard of the ever-lengthening emergency room wait periods.

Managing chronic disease is the also the mainstay of hospitals in other Western countries. In the US, for example, chronic disease accounts for 81 per cent of all hospital admissions, 91 per cent of all prescriptions and 76 per cent of all physician visits.

But the significance of preventing chronic disease is even broader than that.

In this era of a climate emergency, we cannot ignore the impact of pollution on our health. We also must not disregard that excessive beef production endangers our health directly, through consumption of meat, and indirectly, through particular matter and greenhouse gas emissions from cattle.

So why, then, do we often neglect diet when treating, not to mention preventing disease?

Get corporeal
Aside from preserving, boosting and remedying your physical health; making hospitals more effective; and slowing climate change, food is for thought. Nourishing your cognitive and mental health starts with your diet. The body is just an instrument with which you can develop yourself and grow to your fullest potential – and help others.

As the Dalai Lama reportedly said: “[Man] sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

Luigi Fontana is Professor of Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health. He presented his research at the fourth Australian Biology of Ageing Conference, hosted by the University of Sydney.

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Total Comments: 7
  1. 0

    *is simples !! Have more birthdays 😉

  2. 0

    I agree with the article most of our illnesses are self-created though some are genetic. We are the masters of our own destinies when it comes to longevity. Cheers, to exercise and eating unprocessed meals.

  3. 0

    I know most people do not like hearing what I have to say about health, but I have been telling people the same things, less protein, more wholefood carbs and fruit and veggies. I would not use olive oil that is pure fat and has no nutritional benefits. Eat fresh, not packaged, and stay away from the sweet drinks. Eat low calorie foods and you will not have any issues. Look them up to find out, it is all the healthy stuff.

  4. 0

    *is (really) simples 😉 Unless we have been hiding under rocks for the past 20 years we have all read/heard/seen etc what we ‘Should Be Doing’. First thing !! Get some Intestinal Fortitude and then we should be able to put into practice what we already know……..Quoting a really well known person (who I have deliberately forgotten) – ‘You know what grinds my gears ?? People who lack intestinal fortitude “

  5. 0

    It’s pretty obvious when looking at photos / movies from 50-years ago, that the majority of people are overweight now.

    I’ve lost 20 kilos over the past 3-years and people think I’m sick, when in actuality, I’m now at my optimum weight (for my height).

    We’ve all gotten used to carrying those extra few kg’s – we need to take a long hard look at ourselves and start making healthy choices!!!

    My change in diet was easy to manage – I developed a number of good intolerances, and then IBS – so the feedback as to whether I was eating the correct food or not was pretty immediate. I think we could all learn how to listen to our body’s – you’ll get feedback when you make unhealthy choices – you just need to start paying attention

    • 0

      That should be “food” Intolerances (not “good” Intolerances)

    • 0

      I suffered from IBS 8 years ago and it took me awhile to work out my diet too It takes time but doing nothing will result in not getting healthy. I originally was underweight, then after I cured my IBS put on weight, now I have stabilized and even though the BMI charts say I am underweight (including my mum) I feel really good. We have already got accustomed to half the population being overweight it is becoming the norm sadly. I love watching documentaries that showcase what Australia was like in the 40s and 50s and yes no one was overweight. Maybe we do have too much processed food on offer now and people have forgotten to eat real food.



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