Healthier Eating Helps You Live Longer

No surprise here: people who follow healthy diets tend to lead longer, healthier lives. But most of the studies backing this assertion compared people who ate well to people who didn’t. Does changing your own diet over many years make much of a difference?

In a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that it did. People who added in some wholesome foods over time—even if they didn’t necessarily commit to making over their entire way of eating—improved their chances of living longer.

Researchers looked at data from the same group of people over 12 years to see if those who changed their diet for better or for worse—either by eating more healthy foods or more unhealthy foods—lived longer or died earlier than those who didn’t change what they ate.

The study involved more than 73,700 men and women enrolled in two long-term health studies. People were asked to record their typical diet at the start of the study, then to fill out food questionnaires every four years for 12 years after that. The researchers then scored the diets by ranking the healthfulness of food components including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, red meat, fish and dairy, as well as things like sugar-sweetened beverages. Using the reports, researchers were able to gauge how much of a person’s eating habits changed over time.

People who said they ate more healthy foods over time had a lower risk of dying during the study period. The more healthy foods people added to their diet, the lower their risk. It worked the other way, too. Those who ate more unhealthy foods over time saw their risk of dying during the study go up.

The good news is that adding in any amount of healthy foods may help lower the risk of early death. Improving diet by just 20% was linked to a 8-17% lower risk of premature death. (Eating 20% more of unhealthy foods, in contrast, contributed to a 6-12% increased risk in death.)

Even cleaning up one meal a day seems to help. Swapping out one serving of red or processed meat a day with healthier nuts or legumes was linked to any where from an 8% to 17% drop in the risk of premature death.

Is Sleep Important?

Healthy Brain Function and Emotional Well-Being

Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you’re sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day. It’s forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information.

Studies show that a good night’s sleep improves learning. Whether you’re learning math, how to play the piano, how to perfect your golf swing, or how to drive a car, sleep helps enhance your learning and problem-solving skills. Sleep also helps you pay attention, make decisions, and be creative.

Studies also show that sleep deficiency alters activity in some parts of the brain. If you’re sleep deficient, you may have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behavior, and coping with change. Sleep deficiency also has been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behavior.

Children and teens who are sleep deficient may have problems getting along with others. They may feel angry and impulsive, have mood swings, feel sad or depressed, or lack motivation. They also may have problems paying attention, and they may get lower grades and feel stressed.

Daytime Performance and Safety

Getting enough quality sleep at the right times helps you function well throughout the day. People who are sleep deficient are less productive at work and school. They take longer to finish tasks, have a slower reaction time, and make more mistakes.

After several nights of losing sleep—even a loss of just 1–2 hours per night—your ability to function suffers as if you haven’t slept at all for a day or two.

Lack of sleep also may lead to microsleep. Microsleep refers to brief moments of sleep that occur when you’re normally awake.

You can’t control microsleep, and you might not be aware of it. For example, have you ever driven somewhere and then not remembered part of the trip? If so, you may have experienced microsleep.

Even if you’re not driving, microsleep can affect how you function. If you’re listening to a lecture, for example, you might miss some of the information or feel like you don’t understand the point. In reality, though, you may have slept through part of the lecture and not been aware of it.

Some people aren’t aware of the risks of sleep deficiency. In fact, they may not even realize that they’re sleep deficient. Even with limited or poor-quality sleep, they may still think that they can function well.

For example, drowsy drivers may feel capable of driving. Yet, studies show that sleep deficiency harms your driving ability as much as, or more than, being drunk. It’s estimated that driver sleepiness is a factor in about 100,000 car accidents each year, resulting in about 1,500 deaths.

Drivers aren’t the only ones affected by sleep deficiency. It can affect people in all lines of work, including health care workers, pilots, students, lawyers, mechanics, and assembly line workers.

As a result, sleep deficiency is not only harmful on a personal level, but it also can cause large-scale damage. For example, sleep deficiency has played a role in human errors linked to tragic accidents, such as nuclear reactor meltdowns, grounding of large ships, and aviation accidents.

Knowing Your Blood Sugar Numbers

Why do I need to know my blood sugar numbers?

Your blood sugar numbers show how well your diabetes is managed. And managing your diabetes means that you have less chance of having serious health problems, such as kidney disease and vision loss.

As you check your blood sugar, you can see what makes your numbers go up and down. For example, you may see that when you are stressed or eat certain foods, your numbers go up. And, you may see that when you take your medicine and are active, your numbers go down. This information lets you know what is working for you and what needs to change.

How is blood sugar measured?

There are two ways to measure blood sugar.

  • Blood sugar checks that you do yourself. These tell you what your blood sugar level is at the time you test.
  • The A1C (A-one-C) is a test done in a lab or at your provider’s office. This test tells you your average blood sugar level over the past 2 to 3 months.

How do I check my blood sugar?

You use a blood glucose meter to check your blood sugar. This device uses a small drop of blood from your finger to measure your blood sugar level. You can get the meter and supplies in a drug store or by mail.

Read the directions that come with your meter to learn how to check your blood sugar. Your health care team also can show you how to use your meter. Write the date, time, and result of the test in your blood sugar record. Take your blood sugar record and meter to each visit and talk about your results with your health care team.

What are target blood sugar levels for people with diabetes?

A target is something that you aim for or try to reach. Your health care team may also use the term goal. People with diabetes have blood sugar targets that they try to reach at different times of the day. These targets are:

  • Right before your meal: 80 to 130
  • Two hours after the start of the meal: Below 180

Talk with your health care team about what blood sugar numbers are right for you.

DASH Eating Plan

The DASH eating plan requires no special foods and instead provides daily and weekly nutritional goals. This plan recommends:

  • Eating vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
  • Including fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils
  • Limiting foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils
  • Limiting sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets.

Based on these recommendations, the following table shows examples of daily and weekly servings that meet DASH eating plan targets for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.

Daily and Weekly DASH Eating Plan Goals for a 2,000-Calorie-a-Day Diet

Food Group

Daily Servings

Grains

6–8

Meats, poultry, and fish

6 or less

Vegetables

4–5

Fruit

4–5

Low-fat or fat-free dairy products

2–3

Fats and oils

2–3

Sodium

2,300 mg*

Weekly Servings
Nuts, seeds, dry beans, and peas

4–5

Sweets

5 or less

*1,500 milligrams (mg) sodium lowers blood pressure even further than 2,300 mg sodium daily.

When following the DASH eating plan, it is important to choose foods that are:

  • Low in saturated and trans fats
  • Rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein
  • Lower in sodium

Vitamin D — Information about this important nutrient.

What is vitamin D and what does it do?

Vitamin D is a nutrient found in some foods that is needed for health and to maintain strong bones. It does so by helping the body absorb calcium (one of bone’s main building blocks) from food and supplements. People who get too little vitamin D may develop soft, thin, and brittle bones, a condition known as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.

Vitamin D is important to the body in many other ways as well. Muscles need it to move, for example, nerves need it to carry messages between the brain and every body part, and the immune system needs vitamin D to fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Together with calcium, vitamin D also helps protect older adults from osteoporosis. Vitamin D is found in cells throughout the body.

How much vitamin D do I need?

The amount of vitamin D you need each day depends on your age. Average daily recommended amounts from the Food and Nutrition Board (a national group of experts) for different ages are listed below in International Units (IU):

Life Stage Recommended Amount
Birth to 12 months 400 IU
Children 1–13 years 600 IU
Teens 14–18 years 600 IU
Adults 19–70 years 600 IU
Adults 71 years and older 800 IU
Pregnant and breastfeeding women 600 IU

What foods provide vitamin D?

Very few foods naturally have vitamin D. Fortified foods provide most of the vitamin D in American diets.

  • Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel are among the best sources.
  • Beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks provide small amounts.
  • Mushrooms provide some vitamin D. In some mushrooms that are newly available in stores, the vitamin D content is being boosted by exposing these mushrooms to ultraviolet light.
  • Almost all of the U.S. milk supply is fortified with 400 IU of vitamin D per quart. But foods made from milk, like cheese and ice cream, are usually not fortified.
  • Vitamin D is added to many breakfast cereals and to some brands of orange juice, yogurt, margarine, and soy beverages; check the labels.

Can I get vitamin D from the sun?

The body makes vitamin D when skin is directly exposed to the sun, and most people meet at least some of their vitamin D needs this way. Skin exposed to sunshine indoors through a window will not produce vitamin D. Cloudy days, shade, and having dark-colored skin also cut down on the amount of vitamin D the skin makes.

However, despite the importance of the sun to vitamin D synthesis, it is prudent to limit exposure of skin to sunlight in order to lower the risk for skin cancer. When out in the sun for more than a few minutes, wear protective clothing and apply sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 8 or more. Tanning beds also cause the skin to make vitamin D, but pose similar risks for skin cancer.

People who avoid the sun or who cover their bodies with sunscreen or clothing should include good sources of vitamin D in their diets or take a supplement. Recommended intakes of vitamin D are set on the assumption of little sun exposure.

What kinds of vitamin D dietary supplements are available?

Vitamin D is found in supplements (and fortified foods) in two different forms: D2 (ergocalciferol) and D3 (cholecalciferol). Both increase vitamin D in the blood.

Am I getting enough vitamin D?

Because vitamin D can come from sun, food, and supplements, the best measure of one’s vitamin D status is blood levels of a form known as 25-hydroxyvitamin D. Levels are described in either nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) or nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL), where 1 nmol/L = 0.4 ng/mL.

In general, levels below 30 nmol/L (12 ng/mL) are too low for bone or overall health, and levels above 125 nmol/L (50 ng/mL) are probably too high. Levels of 50 nmol/L or above (20 ng/mL or above) are sufficient for most people.

By these measures, some Americans are vitamin D deficient and almost no one has levels that are too high. In general, young people have higher blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D than older people and males have higher levels than females. By race, non-Hispanic blacks tend to have the lowest levels and non-Hispanic whites the highest. The majority of Americans have blood levels lower than 75 nmol/L (30 ng/mL).

Certain other groups may not get enough vitamin D:

  • Breastfed infants, because human milk is a poor source of the nutrient. Breastfed infants should be given a supplement of 400 IU of vitamin D each day.
  • Older adults, because their skin doesn’t make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight as efficiently as when they were young, and their kidneys are less able to convert vitamin D to its active form.
  • People with dark skin, because their skin has less ability to produce vitamin D from the sun.
  • People with disorders such as Crohn’s disease or celiac disease who don’t handle fat properly, because vitamin D needs fat to be absorbed.
  • Obese people, because their body fat binds to some vitamin D and prevents it from getting into the blood.

What happens if I don’t get enough vitamin D?

People can become deficient in vitamin D because they don’t consume enough or absorb enough from food, their exposure to sunlight is limited, or their kidneys cannot convert vitamin D to its active form in the body. In children, vitamin D deficiency causes rickets, where the bones become soft and bend. It’s a rare disease but still occurs, especially among African American infants and children. In adults, vitamin D deficiency leads to osteomalacia, causing bone pain and muscle weakness.

What are some effects of vitamin D on health?

Vitamin D is being studied for its possible connections to several diseases and medical problems, including diabetes, hypertension, and autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis. Two of them discussed below are bone disorders and some types of cancer.

Bone disorders

As they get older, millions of people (mostly women, but men too) develop, or are at risk of, osteoporosis, where bones become fragile and may fracture if one falls. It is one consequence of not getting enough calcium and vitamin D over the long term. Supplements of both vitamin D3 (at 700–800 IU/day) and calcium (500–1,200 mg/day) have been shown to reduce the risk of bone loss and fractures in elderly people aged 62–85 years. Men and women should talk with their health care providers about their needs for vitamin D (and calcium) as part of an overall plan to prevent or treat osteoporosis.

Cancer

Some studies suggest that vitamin D may protect against colon cancer and perhaps even cancers of the prostate and breast. But higher levels of vitamin D in the blood have also been linked to higher rates of pancreatic cancer. At this time, it’s too early to say whether low vitamin D status increases cancer risk and whether higher levels protect or even increase risk in some people.

Can vitamin D be harmful?

Yes, when amounts in the blood become too high. Signs of toxicity include nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, constipation, weakness, and weight loss. And by raising blood levels of calcium, too much vitamin D can cause confusion, disorientation, and problems with heart rhythm. Excess vitamin D can also damage the kidneys.

The upper limit for vitamin D is 1,000 to 1,500 IU/day for infants, 2,500 to 3,000 IU/day for children 1-8 years, and 4,000 IU/day for children 9 years and older, adults, and pregnant and lactating teens and women. Vitamin D toxicity almost always occurs from overuse of supplements. Excessive sun exposure doesn’t cause vitamin D poisoning because the body limits the amount of this vitamin it produces.

Are there any interactions with vitamin D that I should know about?

Like most dietary supplements, vitamin D may interact or interfere with other medicines or supplements you might be taking. Here are several examples:

  • Prednisone and other corticosteroid medicines to reduce inflammation impair how the body handles vitamin D, which leads to lower calcium absorption and loss of bone over time.
  • Both the weight-loss drug orlistat (brand names Xenical® and Alli®) and the cholesterol-lowering drug cholestyramine (brand names Questran®, LoCholest®, and Prevalite®) can reduce the absorption of vitamin D and other fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, and K).
  • Both phenobarbital and phenytoin (brand name Dilantin®), used to prevent and control epileptic seizures, increase the breakdown of vitamin D and reduce calcium absorption.

Tell your doctor, pharmacist, and other health care providers about any dietary supplements and medicines you take. They can tell you if those dietary supplements might interact or interfere with your prescription or over-the-counter medicines, or if the medicines might interfere with how your body absorbs, uses, or breaks down nutrients.

Vitamin D and healthful eating

People should get most of their nutrients from food, advises the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Foods contain vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and other substances that benefit health. In some cases, fortified foods and dietary supplements may provide nutrients that otherwise may be consumed in less-than-recommended amounts. For more information about building a healthy diet, refer to the Dietary Guidelines for Americansexternal link disclaimer and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlateexternal link disclaimer

Disclaimer

This fact sheet by the Office of Dietary Supplements provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your healthcare providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health. Any mention in this publication of a specific brand name is not an endorsement of the product.