Can what you eat help you age gracefully?
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
It seems we’re all trying to find the “magic bullet” that delays the natural aging process. Put an antiaging label on most any product, and it flies off the shelves.
Yet if you’re trying to look your best without going under the knife, a secret ingredient might be right under your nose. Some experts say one answer to aging gracefully can be found in the grocery store — in fruits, vegetables, green tea, and a host of other healthful foods that are rich in antioxidants and other potentially age-deterring compounds.
What Is Aging?
Of course, the signs of aging include not only wrinkles, but also memory loss, decreased brain function, and an increasing risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. Healthy aging is also defined as living a longer, healthier life. And many studies have documented the link between a healthy diet and prevention of age-related or chronic diseases.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity, adequate rest, avoiding tobacco, and a diet full of healthy foods and beverages can be the best defense against aging.
“Dietary choices are critical to delay the onset of aging and age-related diseases, and the sooner you start, the greater the benefit,” says Susan Moores, RD, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.
Antioxidants and Inflammation
Some foods and beverages contain powerful substances called phytonutrients that some believe are capable of unlocking the key to longevity. Phytonutrients, which are members of the antioxidant family, gobble up “free radicals” — oxygen molecules that play a role in the onset of illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
As we age, we become more susceptible to the long-term effects of oxidative stress (a condition where the body basically has too many free radicals) and inflammation on the cellular level. The theory is that antioxidants and other age-defying compounds help cells ward off damage from free radicals and minimize the impact of aging.
Beyond antioxidants, some other compounds in foods can affect aging. They can be classified according to their impact on inflammation at the cellular level, experts say.
“All foods fit into three categories: pro-inflammatory, neutral, or anti-inflammatory,” says dermatologist and best-selling author, Nicholas Perricone, MD.
Perricone says you can help to slow aging at the cellular level by choosing foods that are anti-inflammatory and rich in antioxidants.
“Age-related changes may be reversed by consuming foods and beverages that are rich in a variety of compounds, including antioxidants, and are anti-inflammatory, such as cold-water fish and richly colored fruits and vegetables,” he says.
On the other hand, foods classified as pro-inflammatory can accelerate aging, Perricone says.
If “we eat large amounts of saturated or trans fatty acids, sugars, and starches, insulin levels surge and trigger an anti-inflammatory response and accelerate the aging process,” says Perricone.
While the benefits to eating healthy are many, Perricone notes that diet is certainly not the only factor that affects the aging process.
“Stress, hormones, ultraviolet light, and a weakened immune system also contribute to aging,” he says.
Still, making smart lifestyle choices are within your control, and are among the best things you can do to help prevent disease and retard aging.