Food and Nutrients for an Anti-Aging Diet and Health
Chronological aging is an inevitable process, but feeling older as the years pass certainly isn't inevitable. There are many things that we can do to maintain our health and energy as we grow older. One of the most important strategies for fighting the passage of time is to follow an anti-aging diet. This diet includes foods that are beneficial for everyone but are especially helpful for delaying or preventing the health problems that may accompany aging. The diet can even improve the appearance of the skin. It's also delicious!
For the best results, a nutritious diet should be accompanied by a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise and mental activities such as learning new things and solving puzzles are important components of this lifestyle. Harmful habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol intake should be avoided. The combination of these strategies can help us maintain a healthy, fit body, an active and inquiring mind, and a good memory throughout our lives. It's a great lifestyle for young people as well as middle aged and older ones.
An Anti-Aging Diet and Longevity
The goal of an anti-aging diet is to help a person stay fit, healthy, and alert throughout their lives, but it may also help longevity. The most famous example of this observation is probably the case of the Okinawan people in Japan.
The older people from the island of Okinawa who have followed a traditional diet throughout their lives are famous for living a very long time. They are also known for staying healthy, lean, and active as they age. Diseases that increase in prevalence in aging western people, such as heart disease, cancer, dementia, and osteoporosis, are delayed and often avoided completely in elderly Okinawans.
The health and longevity of the Okinawan people seem to be only partially due to genetics. Okinawans who leave the island and follow a more western diet appear to lose their anti-aging advantage, and so do the younger people of Okinawa who no longer follow a completely traditional lifestyle. Some researchers estimate that the factors that control our longevity are about 50% genetic, with the remaining factors being environmental.
The traditional lifestyle of the Okinawan people involves exercise—including dancing, martial arts, walking, and gardening—as well as spiritual beliefs, which help to reduce stress. These factors may contribute to the people's longevity.
The Okinawan Diet
The traditional diet followed by Okinawan people is low in calories. The people traditionally eat until they are only 80% full. Their diet is high in vegetables, legumes or pulses—especially soy beans—and grains. Some of the grains are whole, but not all of them are. (Western nutritionists say that all the grains in our diet should be whole instead of refined.) Dark green vegetables and sweet potatoes are popular. The diet includes lesser amounts of fruit. Fish that contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids are eaten several times a week. Seaweed is eaten, too.
Meats and eggs are generally a smaller part of the Okinawan diet. Dairy intake is not common. Green tea is drunk regularly, and so is alcohol, but in moderation. Smoking is rare.
Recommended Components of a Healthy Diet
The diet recommended by most nutritionists is quite similar to the Okinawan diet, although Westerners may prefer to eat different amounts of some food types. This may or may not be a good idea.
The diet emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods, especially those that come from plants. Green vegetables are an important component of the diet. Nutritionists recommend that we eat many different colors of produce, producing a "rainbow" effect on our plates, since plant foods in different colors have different health benefits.
An Anti-Aging Diet
The following food groups and beverages are generally recommended for an anti-aging diet.
- Vegetables, especially green ones
- Whole grains
- Low-mercury fish that contain omega-3 fatty acids
- Low-fat dairy products, including yogurt
- Lean animal protein, such as skinless chicken and turkey, if desired
- Eggs, if desired (Eggs are a very nutritious food and don't increase the blood cholesterol level in most of us, even though they contain a large amount of cholesterol themselves.)
- Nuts and seeds, without added oil, salt, or sugar
- Healthy oils, such as extra virgin olive oil
- Herbs and spices
- Healthy beverages, such as water, tea, herbal teas, and cocoa
Nutritionists generally say that the diet should be low in sugar, salt, saturated fat, and alcohol and moderately low in overall fat. Some research suggests that saturated fat may not be as bad for us as was once thought, though this idea is still controversial. More research is needed. Artificial trans or hydrogenated fats should be avoided.
Anthocyanins and Vitamin C
Unsweetened berries are an excellent food for an anti-aging diet. Like many fruits and vegetables, they're rich in phytonutrients, which are also known as phytochemicals. Phytonutrients are chemicals in plants that aren't essential for our survival but are believed to fight disease.
One important family of phytonutrients that is present in berries is the flavonoid family. The anthocyanins form a sub-group in the flavonoid family. Anthocyanins are blue, purple, or red pigments. They are present in many berries, such as blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries, in some vegetables, such as red cabbage, purple cauliflower, and purple potatoes, and in red, purple, or black rice.
Anthocyanins are important because they act as antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, which are made in the chemical reactions that take place in our bodies. Free radicals damage our DNA. They are thought to trigger inflammation and contribute to diseases such as heart disease and cancer. They are also thought to play a role in the aging process.
Another antioxidant in raw berries is vitamin C. This vitamin controls the production of collagen, a protein that supports the structure of skin. In combination with other antioxidants, vitamin C reduces skin damage caused by ultraviolet light. Some research shows that a diet high in vitamin C reduces the formation of skin wrinkles, although not all research supports this idea.
An anti-aging star in the berry world is the blueberry. Multiple researchers have shown that blueberries have memory preservation and memory boosting properties. Their flavonoids may improve learning and reasoning skills as well.
Red and Purple Grapes and Resveratrol
Red and purple grapes contain resveratrol. This substance has been found to reduce functional aging in mice and increase their longevity. According to the results of mice and isolated cell experiments, resveratrol reduces inflammation, acts as an antioxidant, increases blood flow, reduces cardiovascular disease, and prevents the growth of some cancerous tumors. It's unknown if the substance has the same effects in humans, but it may do.
Red wine contains resveratrol, too, but since it's an alcoholic beverage it has some drawbacks. Purple grape juice produced from Concord grapes also contains the chemical, especially if it's made from grapes that were still covered with their skins when they were crushed. It's a good substitute for red wine when fresh grapes aren't available, but it's high in sugar and should be drunk in moderation.
Some Anti-Aging Vegetables
Leafy greens are nutritious foods. For example, spinach, kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts contain lutein and zeaxanthin, yellow pigments which are believed to help maintain vision and reduce the chance of macular degeneration. (Eggs contain these pigments as well.)
Leafy greens also contain beta-carotene, an orange or yellow pigment that boosts the activity of the immune system and is an antioxidant. Greens often contain vitamin K and calcium as well. These are essential nutrients for maintaining bone density. Weight-bearing exercise also helps to maintain the density of our bones as we grow older.
Cruciferous vegetable belong to the plant family known as the Brassicaceae and contain important compounds called glucosinolates. The evidence strongly suggests that a high intake of glucosinolates from cruciferous vegetables reduces the risk of cancer. Examples of cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale.
Sweet potatoes are a good source of nutrients. The orange type, which is known as a yam in North America, is loaded with beta-carotene. All sweet potatoes seem to be healthy foods. Unfortunately, those eaten by the people of Okinawa and often claimed to be a reason for their longevity are a distinct type which isn't generally available in western countries.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Wild salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids that help to maintain brain health and lower the level of triglycerides (fats) in the blood. They may also lower the risk of cardiovascular problems and reduce inflammation. Wild salmon is low in mercury. Sardines are another low-mercury source of the chemicals.
Some plant oils contain omega-3 fatty acids too, but they are in a different form from the animal molecules. The animal form is the most useful type for us. Luckily, our bodies can convert plant omega-3 molecules into animal ones, although in limited amounts. Plant foods that contain significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids include flax seeds and walnuts. Some algal oils contain DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), one of the omega-3 molecules that is most commonly found in animals.
Some Other Foods to Maintain Health
Oats and barley are great sources of soluble fiber, which lowers the level of LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol) in the blood. This decreases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Whole grains also contain insoluble fiber, which helps to prevent constipation and may also reduce the risk of colon cancer, although the evidence for this is mixed.
Spices have a variety of health benefits and are a tasty addition to food. It's a good idea to have as many as possible in the kitchen. Turmeric is an especially interesting spice. It contains a yellow pigment called curcumin that may have specific health benefits.
Curcumin has been found to decrease inflammation in people with metabolic syndrome. There is some evidence that curcumin—or a chemical derived from it—can reduce the presence of the beta amyloid plaques in the brain of lab animals that have a condition resembling Alzheimer's disease. In preliminary tests in lab equipment and animals, curcumin has been found to be helpful in preventing and treating cancer. More research is needed to confirm curcumin's benefits, however. There are many questions that need to be answered.
It should be noted that the concentration of curcumin in the amount of turmeric normally used in food may not be especially helpful. In addition, bioabsorption of curcumin is a problem. Black pepper or piperine, a chemical in black pepper, is said to enhance absorption.
If you plan to take curcumin as a supplement instead of turmeric as a food, it's important that you consult your doctor. You need to ask about medication interactions and about a suitable dose of curcumin for your situation.
Some Healthy Beverages
Green tea contains substances called polyphenols which are thought to have a wide range of health benefits. The most important polyphenols in tea are the catechins. Green tea reduces the risk of heart disease and decreases the blood level of LDL cholesterol. It may also be an anticancer substance, although this claim is somewhat controversial.
Cocoa can be drunk as a hot drink or eaten in the form of a small piece of dark chocolate if preferred. Chocolate needs to be limited in the diet because of its high sugar and fat content. Cocoa improves the health of the cardiovascular system, decreases blood pressure, and reduces the risk of heart disease and strokes. Like tea, cocoa contains catechins. Also like tea, cocoa may decrease the risk of cancer.
Coffee is not often thought of as a health food, but it's been found to protect against some of the diseases that are more common as we age, including type 2 diabetes and Parkinson's disease.
Sugar in the Diet
Most people use the term sugar to refer to sucrose, or table sugar. In nutrition science there are other substances that are classified as sugars, however. Monosaccharide sugars include glucose, fructose, and galactose. A disaccharide sugar is made of two monosaccharides joined together. A maltose molecule is made of two glucose molecules, for example. A sucrose molecule consists of glucose joined to fructose. A lactose molecule is made of glucose and galactose. Disaccharides are broken down into their component monosaccharides during digestion.
Some people think that when food is sweetened by honey or a syrup like agave nectar, it doesn't contain sugar. These sweeteners may not contain sucrose, but they are concentrated sources of other sugars and are best eaten in small amounts.
Sugar, AGEs, and Aging
Glucose, fructose, and galactose undergo a chemical reaction with proteins known as glycation. After glycation takes place, further reactions occur to produce advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. AGEs can form outside the body in processes such as cooking or inside the body as a normal part of our metabolism (the chemical reactions in our cells).
In some situations more AGEs are formed than usual, such as in diabetes. They also accumulate in our bodies as we age. The chemicals can create problems because they form cross links that bind molecules together, which may damage or kill cells. AGEs are believed to contribute to various diseases, including cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's disease. It's also thought that they contribute to skin aging by interfering with the structure or properties of collagen and elastin, two proteins that help to maintain the elasticity and structure of youthful skin.
The possibility of reducing skin aging is one of many reasons to follow a diet that is low in sugars, It's also a reason to avoid over-cooking foods. However, dermatologists say that the most important thing that we can do to reduce skin aging is to wear sunscreen regularly.
Fruits have important health benefits and should definitely be part of the diet, despite containing a fairly high level of fructose. Whole fruits are higher in fiber than fruit juices, especially if they're eaten with their peel. They are also a less concentrated source of sugar.
A Nutritious Diet and Health
There are many discoveries being made about phytonutrients in different plants and their possible or probable health benefits. Many vegetables and fruits are being touted as "super foods". For someone seriously concerned about following a healthy anti-aging diet, choosing the right foods can sometimes become overwhelming.
Instead of thinking "I must eat this food" whenever we read about a new discovery, it might be a better idea to simply eat a wide variety of whole and unprocessed foods, concentrating on the foods that come from plants and eating new foods whenever possible. A nutritious diet doesn't have to be expensive, as the video above shows.
It's fun to try new vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, or spices. It's also fun to grow edible plants at home. A garden isn't necessary for some plants, which can grow well on a balcony or even indoors. Herbs grown on a windowsill and freshly picked add a delicious flavor to foods. Fresh herbs and vegetables are the most nutritious kind. The wider the variety of plants that are eaten, the more interesting the taste combinations that can be produced. An anti-aging diet can be very tasty as well as healthy.
- Okinawan diet information from The Guardian newspaper
- Information about anthocyanins from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center (part of the Louisiana State University System)
- Vitamin C and skin health from Oregon State University
- Possible resveratrol health benefits from Oregon State University
- Some good foods for an anti-aging diet from WebMD
- Green tea health benefits from WebMD
- Cardiovascular benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa from the NIH (National Institutes of Health)
- Curcumin and inflammation in metabolic syndrome from Reuters
- Information about curcumin and cancer from the Mayo Clinic
- Curcumin and Alzheimer's disease from the Medical Xpress news site
- URIBARRI, J., WOODRUFF, S., GOODMAN, S., CAI, W., CHEN, X., PYZIK, R., … VLASSARA, H. (2010). Advanced Glycation End Products in Foods and a Practical Guide to Their Reduction in the Diet. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110(6), 911–16.e12. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2010.03.018
© 2012 Linda Crampton