Can Eating a Healthy Diet Slow Aging?

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What’s the one thing most people fear? No, it’s not just death – but aging. That’s because aging can rob you of the ability to do things you enjoy.

Of course, aging isn’t all bad. With aging comes wisdom. You just want to be in the best shape you can be to share that wisdom with others. That’s where lifestyle comes in. How important is diet and lifestyle for slowing the aging process?

Aging and Diet: Eat Right, Age More Slowly

You’ve heard us talk about the importance of eating a healthy diet MANY times in the past. That’s because eating a healthy diet gives you a better shot at aging “gracefully.” Yes, aging really does begin at the cellular level.

How so? At the level of tiny structures called telomeres. Telomeres are tiny end-caps on the tips of chromosomes, the genetic material inside each of the cells in your body.

Telomeres protect chromosomes and keep them from unraveling when cells divide. As you might have guessed, “unraveled” chromosomes are a bad thing. Some people liken telomeres to the little plastic tips on your shoelaces that keep the shoestring from fraying and unraveling.That’s a pretty good analogy. 

Here’s the kicker: The length of your telomeres says something about how fast your cells are aging. As your cells divide, the protective telomeres become shorter and shorter. That’s why you want to start out with longer ones.

Long telomeres are linked with slower aging and a reduced risk for a number of age-related diseases including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke and obesity. Having longer telomeres is beneficial from an aging standpoint.

Can You Change Your Telomeres?

Here’s the good news. If you have short telomeres, you’re not necessarily stuck with them like you’re stuck with your height and eye color.

A study carried out at the University of California at San Francisco suggests adopting healthy lifestyle habits, including a healthy diet, can change the length of telomeres by either lengthening them or changing how quickly they shorten.

In a small study, researchers asked a group of men with early prostate cancer to make lifestyle changes, including changes to their diet. A second group of similar men made no changes to how they lived and ate.

Amazingly, the men who changed their habits for the better experienced a 10% increase in telomere length. The ones who didn’t? Their telomeres shortened in length by an average of 3%.

Of course, you probably want to know what lifestyle habits they adopted to get these results. They:

  • Adopted a plant-based diet that was high in fruits and vegetables.
  • Cut back on processed carbohydrates and reduced the amount of fat in their diet.
  • Exercised 30 minutes daily 6 days a week.
  • Used one of several methods to reduce stress – yoga, meditation, deep breathing.

Even though this study showed exercise and stress reduction in combination with diet slowed cellular aging, we want to focus mainly on diet in this article. That’s because other studies also show how you eat impacts the aging process. We all have to eat food. Why not eat more of the ones that keep your cells young? 

Of course, we’d like for you to do all of these things but let’s focus on diet for now. Let’s look more closely at the diet the men in the study adopted and why it might slow the aging process.

Benefits of Plant-Based Diet Rich in Fruits and Vegetables

That a plant-based diet slows cellular aging isn’t surprising. Fruits and vegetables are rich in natural chemicals that protect cells against oxidative stress, a major contributor to cellular aging.

One thing that declines with age is the ability to see. People who eat diets rich in fruits and vegetables have a lower risk for two eye diseases related to aging – cataracts and macular degeneration. In addition, eating a produce-rich diet also lowers the risk for heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer.

Plant-based diets may slow aging another way. When you eat more plants, you typically eat less meat. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found processed meat was linked with shorter telomeres.

Broaden Your Culinary Horizons

That doesn’t mean you’re stuck eating tofu. Why not substitute some of the red meat in your diet with fish?  A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed people with higher levels of omega-3s from fish in their blood experienced less telomere shortening over a 5-year period.

Did you know when you cook meat to high temperatures by grilling, roasting, frying or broiling it, it causes compounds called advanced-glycation end products (AGEs) to form? AGEs are very much involved in aging at the tissue level. 

What the heck are they anyway? AGEs are nasty little compounds that bind to blood vessels and cause them to stiffen. They’re also linked with inflammation and tissue damage. In other words, you want as few of them as possible roaming around in your body.

There are some ways to reduce the impact of AGEs. When you prepare meat, use a moist cooking method like steaming, poaching or stewing and marinate the meat with an acidic marinade before exposing it to heat. Doing these things reduces AGE formation.

The Problem with Processed Carbohydrates

Processed carbs and sugar also form AGEs, although in a slightly different way. Sugar binds to the proteins on the surface of blood vessels, forming AGEs. As with AGEs formed from cooked meat, this causes the proteins to stiffen and changes their structure – and not for the better.

Diabetics, because of their higher blood sugar levels, have a higher rate of AGE formation. In fact, some of the complications of diabetes like diabetic kidney disease, heart disease, nerve damage etc. are partially due to the impact of AGEs.

So many packaged foods you buy at the grocery store are made with white flour, lack fiber and are sweetened with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. It’s not just food either. Sugar-sweetened beverages are another culprit in terms of aging. 

A study carried out at the University of California at San Francisco found drinking the equivalent of 20 ounces of soda daily was linked with telomere shortening and cellular aging.

 

If there’s one thing you can to improve your health and slow down aging, it’s give up sugary beverages and soft drinks.

Anti-Aging Diet: What about Fat?

We don’t recommend going on a low-fat diet because low-fat diets usually end up being carb heavy. Instead, be selective with the fats you include in your diet. Healthier sources of fat include fatty fish, nuts, avocados and olive oil. When you prepare foods, use olive oil, as long as you’re not heating the items to high temperatures.

According to an article published in Life Extension magazine, olive oil contains compounds called phenols that actually modify genes associated with aging. So, olive oil may have anti-aging benefits, although we recommend consuming it in moderation since it’s high in calories.

What about nuts? Studies have linked nut consumption with reduced risk for mortality from all causes, especially heart disease.

Dietary Changes Aren’t Always Easy

We understand that changing dietary habits isn’t easy. Start by making small, incremental changes rather than doing a complete diet overhaul. Incremental small changes are more manageable.

Try this. Pick one of the action steps below and do it for two weeks until it becomes a habit. Then try another one. What’s that old saying?

“A journey of a hundred miles begins with a single step.” 

Take that first step. After all, it’s only ONE step. Let us know in the comments which one you chose and how you’re coming along.

Action Steps:

Substitute water or unsweetened tea for half the soft drinks you’re currently drinking. Drink more water in general!

  • Add one more fruit or vegetable daily to your diet.
  • Eat a handful of nuts in place of a dessert or sugary snack.
  • Replace your morning bagel with scrambled eggs or egg whites.
  • Use Stevia in place of sugar to sweeten tea, coffee and cereal.
  • Stop to read labels when you shop. Good for creating awareness.
  • Substitute wild-caught fish for red meat twice during the week.
  • Look through a vegetarian cookbook and select a recipe to try this week.
  • Eat a vegetable in place of a starch. Try spaghetti squash in place of pasta, mashed cauliflower in place of potatoes and baked sweet potato fries in place of French fries.
  • Finally, make sure you’re getting enough magnesium in your diet. Studies have linked low magnesium levels to cellular aging and age-related health problems. 

It’s all about baby steps. What step will you be taking this week?

References:

Science Daily. “Calorie-restricting diets slow aging, study finds” (November 17, 2014)
JAMA. Jan 20, 2010; 303(3): 250.
doi: 10.1001/jama.2009.2008
University of California at San Francisco. “Lifestyle Changes May Lengthen Telomeres, A Measure of Cell Aging” September, 2013.
J Nutr Biochem. 2011 Oct;22(10):895-901. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2010.12.001. Epub 2011 Mar 22.
Harvard School of Public Health. “Vegetables and Fruits: Get Plenty Every Day”
Am J Clin Nutr November 2008 vol. 88 no. 5 1405-1412.
Life Extension. “Olive Oil: Powerful Protection Against Aging And Mortality” (August 2014)

Curr Pharm Des. 2010;16(7):832-9.

 

 

Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.

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