5 Unexpected Ways Your Diet May Be Reducing Your Longevity

A poor diet could be shaving years off your life span. Here's how to build a better eating plan.

Updated on August 4, 2023

man eating a cheeseburger
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You probably know that your diet can seriously help—or hurt—your health, depending on what you eat. A diet rich in trans fats and saturated fats may raise your stroke risk, for example, and eating too much added sugar could increase your risk of death from heart disease, whether you’re overweight or not.

It's also important to note that a poor diet can have the effect of prematurely aging your body. 

Before you overhaul your eating habits, take the RealAge Test. It measures the biological age of your body compared to your calendar age, based on a variety of lifestyle factors, including your diet. When you take the test, you’ll also get personalized tips for lowering your RealAge, like increasing your daily activity and building a diet that can increase your vitality and longevity.  

Ready to switch up your dining routine?

woman drinking water
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You don’t drink enough water

The “right” amount of water varies from person to person depending on their activity level and medical conditions they may have, as well as the air temperature and humidity. Regularly skimping on water may increase your risk of dehydration, which can cause dizziness, irritability, and fatigue. It may also shorten your life span.

A 2023 study from the National Institutes of Health published in eBioMedicine found that adults who stay well-hydrated tend to develop fewer health conditions and live longer compared to those who don't get adequate fluids.

Dehydration can also cause the skin to temporarily lose its elasticity. While an extra glass of water won’t necessarily stave off wrinkles, it may increase skin density and flexibility in the short term and improve its appearance over the long term.

If you want to boost your water intake, try these tips:

  • Buy a durable water bottle to take with you when you're on the go.
  • Infuse your H2O with fresh fruit for added flavor.
  • Set alarms to remind yourself to sip.
  • When you're watching TV, hydrate during commercial breaks.

Keep in mind: For some people, drinking too much can be dangerous. Speak with your healthcare provider before increasing your daily intake, especially if you have a medical condition like heart failure or kidney disease.

Steak ribeye with vegetables
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Your intake of dietary fat is out of balance

Our bodies need some fat to function properly, but it’s important to consume the healthful kinds while reducing intake of the less-healthy types. Trans fats and saturated fats increase levels of LDL (aka “bad” cholesterol). This can raise your risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death among American adults. High cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup that narrows your arteries, increasing the likelihood of blood clots that may cause heart attack, stroke, and premature death.

So, what healthy fats should you eat? Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, found in foods like salmon, nuts, avocados, olive oil, and canola oil. These are all part of a healthy diet and they may help lower levels of LDL. What’s more, consumption of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids—found in fatty fish like sardines, salmon, and tuna—is linked to healthy aging, according to a 2018 study published in BMJ. During the study’s 22-year follow-up period, those with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids had a lower risk of unhealthy aging, characterized by major chronic diseases and poor physical and mental function.

If butter, lard, red meat, and other foods that are in saturated fats are part of your daily diet, start switching them out for foods rich in healthier fats. 

bacon and eggs
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Your diet is over-processed

Processed meats—those treated for preservation or flavor—are convenient and tasty, but they may contribute to a shorter life span. Foods like sausage, corned beef, hot dogs, and bacon tend to be high in saturated fats. Too much of those fats can increase cholesterol levels and, in turn, your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Processed meats may lead to cancer, too, according to the World Health Organization, which classifies them as carcinogens. For example, the risk of colorectal cancer grew 19 percent for each 0.9-ounce serving of processed meat people ate daily, according to a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. And a 2018 analysis of 15 studies published in International Journal of Cancer suggested that women who regularly consumed processed meats had a 9 percent greater risk of breast cancer compared to those who ate the least.

Highly processed refined carbohydrates, like white bread and pasta, are also associated with increased rates of heart issues, and may present an even greater risk than that posed by saturated fats. As much as possible, build your meals instead around fresh produce, whole grains, and plant-based proteins, like beans.

a box full of donuts
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You go heavy on added sugar

Too much added sugar may contribute to the development of extra fat around your midsection. Regardless of your overall weight, having excess belly fat raises your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Consuming excess sugar may also have a negative effect on your skin.

Collagen is a protein that lends strength and support to the skin. When sugar binds to protein during a process called glycation, it damages and alters the production and maintenance of collagen. 

Instead of rich desserts made with added sugars, try satisfying your sweet tooth with a cup of mixed berries or other fruit.

Glasses of red and white wine
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You overdo happy hour

Excess drinking can increase the risk of cancer, liver damage, and high blood pressure. The calorie content of wine, beer, or spirits can also have an impact: weight gain. Overweight and obese individuals are at a higher risk for diabetes and heart disease.

If you choose to sip, do so at a moderate level. That means one drink a day for women and two for men. If you don’t drink now, know that there is no health reason to support adding alcohol to your diet.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

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American Heart Association. Added Sugars. April 17, 2018.
Mayo Clinic. Nutrition and healthy eating. October 14, 2020. 
S Williams, N Kruger, et al. Effect of fluid intake on skin physiology: distinct differences between drinking mineral water and tap water. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. March 2007. Volume 29, Issue 2, Pages 131-138.
Palma L, Marques LT, et al. Dietary water affects human skin hydration and biomechanics. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015 Aug 3;8:413-21.
MedlinePlus. Omega-3 fats - Good for your heart. May 26, 2020. 
American Heart Association. Fats. June 28, 2018.
American Heart Association. Saturated Fat. 2021.
Mayo Clinic. Heart disease. January 12, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Disease Facts. September 8, 2020.
American Heart Association. What Is Cardiovascular Disease? April 17, 2018. 
X Wang, X Lin, et al. Red and processed meat consumption and mortality: dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Public Health Nutrition. 2016 Apr;19(5):893-905.
MS Farvid, MC Stern, et al. Consumption of red and processed meat and breast cancer incidence: A systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. International Journal of Cancer. 2018 Dec 1;143(11):2787-2799.
FB Hu. Are refined carbohydrates worse than saturated fat? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. June 2010. 91(6), 1541–1542.
World Health Organization. Cancer: Carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. October 26, 2015.
KE Bradbury, N Murphy, TJ Key, Diet and Colorectal Cancer in UK Biobank: a Prospective Study. International Journal of Epidemiology. Volume 49, Issue 1, February 2020, Pages 246–258.
Harvard Health Publishing. Red and processed meats raise colorectal cancer risk. July 2019. 
MU Jakobsen, C Dethlefsen, et al. Intake of carbohydrates compared with intake of saturated fatty acids and risk of myocardial infarction: importance of the glycemic index. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2010 Jun;91(6):1764-8. 
Kelly Bilodeau. Belly fat linked with higher heart disease risk. Harvard Health Publishing. July 26, 2018. 
P Gkogkolou, & M Böhm, M. Advanced glycation end products: Key players in skin aging? Dermato-endocrinology. 4(3), 259–270.
RW Farndale, JJ Sixma, et al. The role of collagen in thrombosis and hemostasis. Journal of Thrombosis and Hemostasis. April 2004. Volume 4, Issue 2, pages 561-573.
Mayo Clinic. Men’s health: Belly fat in men: Why weight loss matters. June 13, 2019. 
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