20 Subtle Signs Your Diet Is Shortening Your Lifespan
It’s a staggering statistic. Nearly half of all American adults have at least one preventable chronic disease such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Most of these preventable diseases—which, by the way, are the leading causes of death in the United States—are related to poor diet quality and eating patterns, according to the USDA. The Center for Science in the Public Interest estimates that an unhealthy diet contributes to approximately 678,000 deaths each year in the U.S.
Your diet shouldn’t be hurting you; it should be helping you. Eating a healthy, balanced diet usually leaves your body feeling amazing. Getting proper nutrition not only benefits your physical health but also your mental and emotional health. And when your diet is out of whack, your body has ways of telling you that something is not right.
How can you tell that your diet is shortening rather than extending your lifespan? We tapped dietary and medical experts to identify the subtle signs you should be looking out for. The following symptoms are not only signs of larger health problems, but even worse, these issues are also linked to a higher risk of early death.
Here are 20 symptoms that could signal a serious health issue, and how you can adjust your diet to address the problem.
You can’t stop craving sugar.
Your sugar cravings may be a sign of a larger health issue than you thought. The more sugar you have, the more you want, explains Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Wellness. Too much sugar-sweetened beverages can lead to early death according to a 2019 study, which examined sugar-sweetened beverages and drinking habits in terms of an increased risk from death from all causes. Having two or more sugary drinks per day, like soda, had a 31% increased risk.
You notice frequent mood swings.
Multiple studies have explored the connection between mental health and longevity. It has been established that those with a more positive mood tend to live longer statistically, shares Rebekah Blakely, RDN, registered dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe. While some of that may be genetic, many people don’t realize how big of an impact food can have on our emotions, she adds.
For example, many of our brain neurotransmitters that regulate emotions (like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA) rely on the intake of certain amino acids for production. Amino acids come from foods with protein, therefore getting adequate protein is important to support a positive mood. Additionally, other nutrients support mood such as B vitamins and magnesium. These can be found in foods such as meat, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. To support a more positive mood, make sure you get a protein-based food with every meal (meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds) along with one to two servings of other foods high in magnesium and B vitamins.
You constantly feel bloated.
Consistent intake of highly processed foods, which tend to be high in sodium (chips, crackers, many brands of commercial nut butters, canned foods, most brands of grocery store bread—even whole wheat!), dining out frequently, as well as a poor intake of fruit, nuts, seeds and vegetables, and poor fluid intake, can contribute to bloating, shares Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LD/N, nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition. And while bloating might be a minor discomfort in the moment, it may also signal something else long-term. A bloated stomach is a sign your diet is too high in sodium and too low in potassium (due to low fruit and veggie intake). This dietary pattern may result in an undiagnosed blood pressure issue, which can certainly cause untimely death. Plus, chronic high salt intake in the presence of low potassium intake is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and death.
You feel depressed.
Depression can be caused by multiple factors, one of which is a poor diet. Kirkpatrick tells us that a 2019 study found that a junk food heavy diet can make you more likely to experience mental distress. This was not the first study to make this association. Low levels of omega 3 fatty acids and folate also have been associated with poor mental health. Depression is a risk factor for early death, so you may consider going to your medical professional to get looked at.
You lose (and gain) weight often.
Weight cycling, often referred to as yo-yo dieting has been associated with many negative health outcomes, shares Alexis Fissinger, RD, CDN, CSP, a dietitian at the Center for Advanced Digestive Care and Phyllis and David Komansky Center for Children’s Health at Weill Cornell Medicine. Repeatedly losing and regaining as little as five to 10 pounds as a result of unsustainable weight loss efforts may increase the risk of heart disease, elevated blood pressure, and certain types of cancer. Reconsider fad diets and aim to make lifestyle changes one at a time.
You’re not hungry for breakfast.
“We usually see this in people who tend to eat massive amounts late at night, therefore reducing morning hunger,” explains Auslander Moreno. Who adds that this also leads to people overeating at lunch when they skip breakfast. Research shows that breakfast eaters tend to have lower weights than non-breakfast eaters. Eating late at night can disrupt metabolism and contribute to metabolic derangements over time which can be risk factors for chronic diseased linked to increased risk of early death, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
You’re always constipated.
Trouble on the toilet? Your diet may be lacking fiber, which we get from vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Veronica Guerrero, MD, a General Surgeon at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital points to one study which says only 5 percent of adults get enough fiber in their diets every day. Constipation can make you miserable and lead to pain, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and other issues.
To keep your bowels moving, make sure half of your plate is filled with non-starchy veggies and a quarter of your plate is fruit. The National Institutes of Health recommends that women get 25 grams of fiber a day and men get 38, with a slight reduction in those numbers as we age. Drink plenty of water, and consider taking a probiotic supplement to add healthy bacteria to your gut. Regular exercise can also keep you regular, so aim for 30 minutes most days of the week.
You wake up hungover frequently.
Drinking too much too often can be harmful to your health—and may even lead to early death. Gabrielle Siragusa, RD, CDN, CDE, of Ambulatory Care Network Weill Cornell Internal Medicine Associates (WCIMA) explains that excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases including hypertension, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, digestive problems, and certain types of cancer. Unhealthy alcohol consumption can also increase your risk for nutrient deficiencies that can lead to malnutrition and a variety of health problems. The dietary guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 state that moderate drinking is up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.
You’re experiencing irregular heartbeats.
Caffeine, from soda, coffee or energy drinks can cause irregular heartbeats known as arrhythmias. The occasional arrhythmia is probably harmless, but Guerrero warns that tachycardia—a heartbeat that is too fast for a sustained amount of time—can affect the heart’s ability to circulate blood, resulting in cardiac arrest. Arrhythmia can also cause atrial fibrillation, which interferes with the way the heart’s chambers synchronize as they pump blood. This can cause life-threatening blood clots to form and lead to a stroke.
If you’re experiencing irregular heartbeats, find new beverages that are safer for your heart and schedule an appointment with your doctor. “I tell my patients to ditch energy drinks, to limit the amount of caffeinated coffee and tea they drink and to consider other low-calorie options,” shares Guerrero.
Your urine is consistently dark yellow.
Dark urine is a sign of chronic dehydration and poor water intake, notes Auslander Moreno. “This can lead to overeating (we often mistake hunger for what it really is—thirst), electrolyte imbalances, poor bowel health, poor kidney health, and decreased the likelihood of exercising, which are all associated with poor health outcomes,” she adds. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends a daily fluid intake as 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids for men, and 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids a day for women.
Your gums are swollen and inflamed.
“A common nutrition-related oral health problem is swollen or inflamed gums,” notes Kirkpatrick. Studies show that swollen or bleeding gums can be associated with a low intake of Vitamin C, a vitamin that is rich in plant-based foods such as strawberries, tomatoes, green leafy vegetables, and red bell peppers.
You’re hungry all the time.
If you’re always hungry, Guerrero suggests your diet may be lacking protein and healthy fats. Proteins are the building blocks of muscle, which you need to stay strong and nimble as you age. Proteins can also help you maintain a healthy weight by staving off hunger and prevent overeating, a main cause of obesity. Healthy fats like omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce the risk for stroke and heart disease, and they also reduce blood pressure and LDL, which is the “bad” cholesterol.
To feel satisfied after your meals, Guerrero recommends combining healthy proteins with non-starchy veggies and healthy fats like olive oil or avocado slices. A salad with grilled chicken breast or steak, avocado slices, tomatoes, red onion, and a quick homemade vinaigrette is perfect during the summer months. I mix an acid like lemon juice or red wine vinegar with olive oil and a little salt and pepper to make a healthy dressing that’s good over salads or grilled vegetables and meats.
You feel tired or fatigued.
Feeling tired constantly may be a subtle sign that you are not eating enough iron-rich foods. It is estimated that iron deficiency anemia affects over 12% of the world’s population. “If left undiagnosed and untreated, iron-deficiency anemia can lead to heart problems such as arrhythmias or even heart failure because the heart has to work harder to move oxygen-rich blood throughout the body,” Francesca Maglione, RD, CDN, CSO, Stich Radiation and Starr Infusion Centers, Oncology Services tells us.
Men require 8 mg of iron per day and women (age 19-50) require 18 mg of iron per day.
Eating plenty of iron-rich foods can help ensure you are getting enough iron in your diet. Iron-rich foods include:
- Fortified cereal: 18 mg per 1 serving, 100% DV
- Oysters: 8 mg per 3 ounces, 44% DV
- White beans: 4 mg per ½ cup (canned), 22% DV
- Lentils: 3 mg per 1/2 cup (boiled), 17% DV
- Spinach: 3 mg per 1/2 cup (boiled), 17% DV
- Tofu: 3 mg per 1/2 cup (firm), 17% DV
- Beef: 2 mg per 3 ounces, 11% DV
Avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals to improve iron absorption. Add foods rich in vitamin C to meals and snacks to help increase absorption.
You have abdominal pain and digestion issues.
Abdominal pain and digestion issues are signs of diverticulitis, an acute infection, Auslander Moreno shares. Diverticulosis (a more chronic kind of diverticulitis), she adds, is also associated with low-fiber, high refined-carbohydrate, high-alcohol, and low-fluid diets. These kinds of diets not only contribute to painful diverticulitis but are also associated with poor health outcomes and mortality over time.
You catch every cold that comes your way.
“The risk of infectious disease may be increased when your immunity is compromised,” Kirkpatrick warns. Studies show that poor nutrition (one that limits the amount of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean sources of protein) can lead to worsening immunity, which in turn increases the risk for development of infectious disease.
Your skin and hair are dry and brittle.
“One approach to weight loss is a low-fat diet. However, restriction of dietary fat for the purpose of weight loss often does not work,” notes Stacy Stern, MS, RD, CDN, Center for Advanced Digestive Care GI Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery.
Not only will you be less likely to lose weight following a low-fat diet, but you’re also more likely to experience additional health issues.
“Your skin and hair are some of the first places that outwardly show you’re lacking healthy fats in your diet,” adds Tiffanie Young, MS, RD, LDN, dietitian and director of community health services at Northwestern Medicine Woodstock Hospital. “If your skin is dry and itchy and your hair loses its shine, consider ways to enhance your diet and incorporate the fats you need to stay healthy inside and out,” she explains.
The healthy fats in fish, nuts, olive oil and avocados keep your heart healthy, your metabolism boosted, and help your body absorb essential vitamins and also boost your brain power. “If you aren’t getting enough fats in your diet your hair and skin are among the first to suffer,” notes Young. Try drizzling olive oil on roasted vegetables and salads, and eat sliced avocado with chili flakes and salt. Fats are a delicious and healthy addition to any diet when you’re eating the right kind.
Your food makes you thirsty.
If you are using salt as a condiment, eating processed foods, or frequently dine out you are likely exceeding recommendations for sodium intake, warns Maglione. This increases your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Research has shown that a high intake of sodium is associated with cardiometabolic mortality. The American Heart Association recommends less than 2,300mg of sodium daily (1 teaspoon of salt); however, it is preferred to consume less than 1,500mg/day.
Shop smart! Try to consume whole unprocessed foods. Read the nutrition facts label and choose reduced or low sodium options. When cooking, substitute salt for spices and herbs to create flavorful dishes.
You are starving mid-morning, even after breakfast.
“We see this in low-fiber, high-carbohydrate, low-protein and low-fat breakfasts (even an “organic” cereal and almond milk can have very little protein. Or worse, when people just have a juice in the morning, but traditionally something like a bagel or toaster pastry,” notes Auslander Moreno.
When you assault your system with sugar and refined carbohydrates in the morning, especially because this is when many people tend to have high blood sugar levels to begin with, there is a rapid spike and drop in blood sugar and therefore insulin, which can lead to the need for a mid-morning snack (which leads to oftentimes poor impulsive choices). Additionally, that kind of insulin activity can lead to fat storage and eventually the erratic pattern can contribute to the development of diabetes.
Your hands are puffy or your ankles are swollen by the end of the day.
“Your diet may include too many processed foods,” suggests Guerrero, “which are higher in sodium and may cause fluid retention.” If you occasionally experience swelling, a change to your diet may address the issue. Adults should only consume between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams of salt per day, according to guidelines from the American Heart Association. If you regularly have swollen ankles, a physician can rule out more serious issues like problems with your heart or kidneys.
The key to keeping fresh, whole-food ingredients as the basis for every meal? Have whole foods prepared in advance and pack your lunch when you’re headed to work or travel. Keep tasty grab-and-go snacks in your fridge, too, and you’ll be more likely to reach for them rather than less healthy “convenience foods” when you’re on the go.
Your eyes are red and puffy with dark circles underneath.
“This is one of the most obvious physical signs of sleep deprivation,” notes Blakely. “Your body uses those critical hours while you sleep at night to repair cells and muscles, consolidate memories, and regulate hormones. While we need adequate sleep to look and feel good on a daily basis, the Whitehall II Study showed that those who are sleep deprived may actually have an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease,” she adds.
Those who drink a lot of caffeinated beverages, or who drink caffeine past mid-afternoon, may find their sleep duration and quality to suffer. To support better sleep, cut off caffeine no later than six hours before bedtime (switching to decaf coffee/tea and water), keep it to 400 milligrams or less per day total. You should also avoid alcohol at least two hours before bed, and stick to the recommended two drinks per day for men and one for women.