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A six-year study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found three behaviors exerted enormous impact on mortality: not currently smoking, consuming a healthier diet, and moderately exercising at least 21 minutes a day. People with all three behaviors reduced their chances of dying in that time by 82 percent.

A similar study measured how much vitamin C subjects had in their bloodstreams, as vitamin C level was considered a good biomarker of plant food intake (and hence was used as a proxy for a healthy diet). The drop in mortality risk among those with healthier habits was equivalent to being 14 years younger.

The mitochondrial theory of aging suggests that free radical damage to our cells’ power source (mitochondria) leads to a loss of cellular energy and function over time. According to the theory, the resulting cellular damage is what essentially causes aging. Aging and disease have been thought of as the oxidation of the body, but eating antioxidant-rich foods may slow down this oxidant process. On average, plant foods may contain 64 times more antioxidants than animal foods. Including a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices each meal continuously floods our body with antioxidants to help ward off stroke and other age-related diseases.

Consuming fruits and veggies, and not smoking, has also been associated with longer protective telomeres, the caps on the tips of our chromosomes that keep DNA from unraveling. Each time our cells divide, a bit of that cap is lost. Telomeres can start shortening as soon as we’re born, and when they’re gone, we’re gone. The food we eat may impact how fast we lose our telomeres: Consumption of refined grains, soda, meat, and dairy has been linked to shortened telomeres, while fruit, vegetable, and other antioxidant-rich plant food intake has been associated with longer ones.

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