The way we eat significantly affects how well we age. Small changes to your diet can give you vitality and longevity as well as reduce your crow’s feet
While ageing is inevitable, how well we age may be quite malleable. The rate at which we age and the risk of health problems in later life are undoubtedly influenced by our genes. But the way our genes express themselves can depend on external factors, including lifestyle. And one factor that can have a considerable influence is our diet.
Possibly the best-known nutritional approach for slowing down the ageing process and extending life is caloric restriction. Studies in a wide range of animals have found that restricting the amount eaten in the long term can extend life considerably. If the results translate to humans, some say this approach might add years to our lives.
It may also be a good idea to cut back on carbohydrate (sugar and starch). Low carbohydrate diets have not been tested on humans in terms of their effect on longevity, but they have been found to lead to improvements in a range of disease markers including weight, waist circumference, blood pressure and blood fats.
Two substances that are heavily involved in the ageing process are the hormone insulin and a related substance known as insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Dampening down the activity of insulin and IGF-1 has been suggested as a route to better health and longer life.
Eating less carbohydrate may have other anti-ageing benefits too. Many carbohydrates (including most starchy foods such as bread, potato and rice) tend to give a quick and sustained release of glucose into the bloodstream. Lots of sugar in the system increases a process known as glycation, where glucose binds to tissues and damages tissues in the body. Glycation of collagen in the skin, for instance, has been suggested as a factor in the development of wrinkles and loss of tone, and glycation is also linked to heart disease, stroke and chronic kidney disease.
The best anti-ageing diet is one that is rich in natural fats
Surges in glucose in the bloodstream from eating carb-rich food also encourages inflammation. This is essentially what causes redness and swelling in an arthritic knee. Lower-grade inflammation throughout the body (sometimes referred to as systemic inflammation) is believed to be a major driver of chronic illness, and has been implicated in age-related diseases including Alzheimer’s disease.
Increasing your vegetable intake will also have benefits. It’s true that vegetables are essentially a carbohydrate-based food, but many of them (generally those that grow above ground) do not provide anything like the amount of glucose that comes from starchy foods. Plus, many vegetables and fruits are rich in flavonoids, substances that have natural anti-inflammatory action in the body. Good examples include berries, onions, walnuts, citrus fruits, green tea and, mercifully, cocoa.
Don’t take all this to mean that you should necessarily be on a fashionable, high-protein diet. When people hear “low-carb”, they often think “high protein”. Protein is required for the preservation of tissues in the body as we age, particularly the muscle. But while protein does not lead to acute rises in blood sugar, it does have the potential to trigger insulin secretion and may increase levels of IGF-1 too. Moderate, but not excessive, amounts of protein in the diet seems to be best.
There’s no need to cut fat from your diet. In fact this “macronutrient” is essential. Research shows that diets rich in fat outperform carb-based, lower-fat diets in terms of their effect on weight and other markers for health too.
Possibly the best-known nutritional approach for slowing down ageing and extending life is caloric restriction
One particular brand of fat — saturated fat — has been particularly vilified because of an assumed role in heart disease. In reality, eating less saturated fat has not been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke or overall risk of death.
Polyunsaturated vegetable oils such as sunflower oil and corn oil are rich in what are termed omega-6 fatty acids. In general, these fats increase inflammation, and may thicken the blood and increase blood pressure too. So-called omega-3 fats (found in oily fish) generally do the reverse. Increasing our omega-3 intake may therefore promote better health and longevity.
It is worth considering that when people switch from a typically carb-laden diet to one that is fattier in composition and based more on natural unprocessed foods, they typically eat less (sometimes several hundred calories less each day) quite spontaneously.
For those who want to slow down the ageing process, what the evidence points to as the best diet is one rich in fats found naturally in the diet, with a particular emphasis on perhaps omega-3 fats, along with adequate but not excessive amounts of protein, and carbohydrate mainly from vegetables and relatively low-sugar fruits such as berries.
Such a diet possibly offers the potential to improve overall health as well as longevity. Perhaps this is one way to add years to our life and life to our years.