What you put on your plate can make a big difference to how quickly you age. Karen Fittall reveals how to get it right.
The jury is in, and the news is all good. While genetics and lifestyle both play a role in determining how long and well you live, research shows the way you live your life has the biggest impact. This means, to a large extent, your future health and well-being rests firmly in your own hands.
The evidence has been steadily mounting since scientists began researching the Blue Zones – the five geographical regions that are home to the world’s longest-living people. These are Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Icaria in Greece and among Seventh-day Adventists living in Loma Linda, California.
Researchers have pinpointed certain common lifestyle characteristics that contribute to longevity, and many of them are diet related. Here are the top seven scientifically proven ways you can use food to age well.
1. Eat the rainbow
Why it works
Striving to eat as many different coloured foods in every single meal will invariably mean eating more fruit and vegetables. When you eat seven serves of fruit and veg each day, your mortality risk improves by 42 per cent, according to UK researchers.
“The colours of fruits and vegetables, and those of other foods like herbs, spices and nuts, come from protective and disease-fighting antioxidants,” says Ngaire Hobbins, dietitian and author of Eat to Cheat Ageing. “By making the effort to include a wide range of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables on your plate, you know that you’re eating a variety of antioxidants in every meal.”
How to do it
Commit to covering half your plate at lunch and dinner with vegetables in a variety of colours. And eat whole pieces of fruit as between-meal snacks. University of Otago researchers say doing both daily is an effective way to hit the seven serves a day target with minimal effort.
2. Mimic the ‘Med’ diet
Why it works
The Mediterranean diet has been linked to a longer life as well as healthy ageing. So it’s no surprise that people in one of the five Blue Zones – Ikaria in Greece – have been following this style of eating down the years.
One explanation for the Med diet’s anti-ageing effect is that it protects against the inflammation that accelerates the speed at which your body’s telomeres start to lose their length. Telomeres are protective caps that sit on the end of your chromosomes. Their robustness directly influences how well your cells age, and the longer your telomeres, the better. The Mediterranean way of eating has been shown to halve the risk of heart disease over a 10-year period, and protect against the brain shrinkage that commonly occurs with ageing.
How to do it
Base your diet primarily on plant-based foods such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, veges and fruit. Also aim to eat fish twice a week, while limiting red meat to a few times a month. Replace butter with extra-virgin olive oil, and salt with herbs and spices.
3. Dine with friends
Why it works
Eating with friends helps you stay connected to your social circle and tops up your sense of well-being in later life, according to a 2016 study. It’s also a Blue Zone feature. US researchers say close friendships, rather than close family relationships, are a stronger predictor of health and happiness as we age.
“To pair socialising with a meal is a great way to exercise your brain too, because there are so many different things you have to focus on, from remembering names, following a conversation, through to making decisions about food,” Ms Hobbins says.
How to do it
Throw a dinner party at your place from time to time, rather than always eating out on special occasions. “When you cook at home, you obviously have much greater control over the ingredients that are used, which can add up to a healthier, more nutritious meal,” dietitian Milly Smith says.
Researchers agree that people who cook most of their meals at home consume significantly fewer kilojoules and eat less sugar and fat. Throwing a dinner party also pays a financial and friendship dividend – it saves money and your friends may invite you back!
4. Factor in fermented foods
Why it works
Lab-based studies have uncovered the natural anti-ageing potential of fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut.
Foods that have been through the fermentation process have also been shown to positively affect the expression of genes related to weight gain, thanks to the way they improve gut bacteria. And that’s powerful, because gaining just a moderate amount of weight in mid-life decreases the chances of you achieving healthy ageing, according to a study released in 2017.
How to do it
Always choose and eat sauerkraut and kimchi that have been naturally fermented. Shelf-stable varieties are preserved using vinegar rather than fermentation, so they don’t contain the beneficial bacteria. And you’re probably more likely to enjoy the pungent taste of fresh sauerkraut or kimchi.
5. Experiment with new recipes
Why it works
Having new goals to work towards (including nailing that vege fritter recipe) gives your life purpose and that’s a feeling scientifically proven to add years to your life.
Adventurous eaters find it easier to lose weight without feeling restricted, and people who eat a wide variety of foods are more likely to be successful at lowering their body-fat levels. This in turn means that their bodies will age more slowly.
How to do it
Write down the recipes you want to try, make a list of the ingredients or equipment you’ll need, and share with a friend your plans to cook something new. Combined, those three actions mean you will be significantly more likely to reach your ‘master new recipes’ goal.
6. Fast now and then
Why it works
Restricting your daily kilojoule intake from time to time has been linked to a wide variety of health benefits, including lower blood pressure, body fat, waist size, cholesterol and blood glucose levels.
One of the most recent fasting studies shows that people who fast once a month experience a drastic decline in their levels of a hormone that has been linked to accelerated ageing.
How to do it
Fast for five consecutive days each month. There are various ways of fasting, but it was the study’s monthly five-day fast that had a positive impact on the ageing hormone.
Start fasting by reducing your kilojoules to 4600kJ (1100cal) on day one of the fast, and then eating 3000kJ (720cal) for the following four days. If you have any health issues or concerns, check with your GP or a dietitian before you begin fasting.
See Get well, fast: Intermittent fasting for health and weight ADD LINK for more information.
7. Eat protein with every meal
Why it works
“Protein-rich foods are key, as we age, for helping to maintain the all-important muscle mass in the body,” Ms Smith says. “The smartest strategy is to spread your protein intake across all three daily meals, rather than just including it at dinner.”
What’s so great about muscle? Research shows it plays a vital role in healthy ageing, but muscles are naturally inclined to lose size and strength as you get older. So it pays to do what you can to keep them topped up.
How to do it
Cook meals using plant-based protein sources, such as lentils, nuts and tofu, rather than animal-based protein sources. A 2016 study found the more people ate plant protein, the less risk they had of dying from a range of causes.
Call it quits
While some foods have anti-ageing properties, others have the opposite effect. Try to limit:
“Choose foods that are as close as possible to their natural state, including whole grains rather than refined ones,” Ms Hobbins says. Researchers agree: when Italian scientists looked at the diets of people who’d lived to 100, they discovered they routinely avoided refined carbohydrates.
Processed deli meats
Bacon, ham, salami and sausages have been singled out as foods that contribute to a higher risk of death. Plus, the World Health Organization has classified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen because evidence shows the chemicals used to preserve them, as well as those that form when they’re digested, can cause cancer.
Drinking sugary soft drinks can shave years off your lifespan, say California-based scientists. They found a daily 237ml serve was associated with losing about 1.9 years. Those drinking daily serves of 591ml lost around four-and-a-half years. The high-sugar load the drinks deliver accelerates the ageing process, so people who regularly drink have significantly shorter telomeres.
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