If the only edible indiscretions you worry about are those that make you gain weight, you may have your priorities mixed up. It turns out that the worst dietary demons, including many sugary, fatty, refined and highly processed foods, do more than add thunder to your thighs, experts say — they subtract years from your life.
Nutrition, not age, determines the body’s internal chemistry, and that chemistry determines, in large part, the quality and resiliency of virtually every organ, cell and system in the body.
Everything from the condition of your skin to the quality of your bone, brain and connective tissue is determined in part by what you eat. As a result, your eating habits are a major determinant in how quickly you begin to see and feel the effects of aging.
Of course the occasional cheeseburger isn’t going to turn you into Rip Van Winkle, but when dietary lapses become daily habits, they can erase years from your life — and add years to your appearance. Here’s how to fix some bad habits that may be aging you from the inside out.
Bad Habit No. 1 — A weakness for fast food
Big Offender: Trans fat (a vegetable-oil concoction infused with hydrogen atoms)
How It Ages You: Trans fat is an aging bonanza: The gory details of its negative impacts could fill a book, but let’s start with the most deleterious result — inflammation. Trans fat is to chronic inflammation what kerosene is to fire. Inflammation ages you from the inside out by nibbling away at your telomeres, the caps protecting the ends of your chromosomes. Every time a chromosome divides, its telomere shortens. So telomere length is not only a sign of how old you are, but also a measure of how well your body is aging.
Mehmet Oz, MD, a heart surgeon at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City compares telomeres to the tips on the ends of your shoelaces. If they break, the chromosomes fray. That’s bad, he explains, because the shorter the telomere, the less efficient the chromosome. How does that translate in the body? “If your telomeres are short, you lose your ability to regenerate your organs,” he explains.
Trans fat also adds years to your age by muffling chitchat between cells. Cells need pliable walls to talk to one another. The body makes cell walls out of fat — good fat equals healthy walls; bad fat equals patchy walls. Because trans fat is manmade, the molecule has an unnatural shape. Like forcing a square peg into a round hole, trans fat’s odd dimension gums up the system, says Kevin Spelman, PhD, a research scientist in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
“On a very core level, the odd shape begins to change cell-to-cell signaling and membrane fluidity, which has a profound effect on both health and aging.” (For more on the damage wreaked by fast food and for advice on ending fast-food addictions, see “Break the Fast-Food Habit” in the May 2008 archives.)
The Fix: Steer clear of fast food, ask for ingredient lists at restaurants, and read product labels assiduously at the grocery store. Although many fast-food chains and prepared-food manufacturers are scrambling to nix trans fat from their products, very few have managed a total clear-out. To boot, trans-fat labeling can be misleading — if the product contains 0.5 grams or less, manufacturers can list it as zero percent. To be certain, scan the ingredients list for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils, which indicate the presence of trans fat. Besides, trans fat is only one of many problems associated with these foods (read on for more).
Bad Habit No. 2 — Giving in to a serious sweet tooth
Big Offender: Sucrose (the refined, highly processed and crystallized version of plant sugars)
How It Ages You: The human body evolved with a limited ability to break down sugar, and very limited access to it in concentrated forms, so processing the comparatively giant loads we consume nowadays puts a huge strain on our systems. Excess sugar loiters in the blood and causes trouble by glomming onto protein molecules, an age-accelerating process called glycosylation that causes cellular aging in several ways.
First, it slows down the body’s repair mechanism. Although glycosylation’s effects are mostly internal, aging skin is a prime external sign. When too much sugar in the blood causes glycosylation, the skin loses its natural repair mechanisms, explains Shawn Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist and author of The Metabolic Method (Currant Book, 2008). “Sugar molecules gum up the collagen in your skin,” he says, “which makes it less elastic, makes it wrinkle faster, and means it won’t heal as quickly if it’s damaged.”
Glycosylation also ages the body by spawning oxidative stress. Sugar molecules cut and irritate everything they touch, like so many shards of glass, says Oz. The damage, called oxidation, eventually leads to a buildup of toxins called AGEs (short for advanced glycation endproducts). The accumulation of some AGEs is natural — AGEs in the blood increase fivefold during a person’s lifetime — but eating poorly is like hitting the fast-forward button on aging.
That’s because, as AGEs build up in the body, they damage the cellular engines: the mitochondria. The loss of cellular energy gives rise to a dizzying array of age-related complaints such as loss of memory, hearing, vision and stamina. Even more troubling are new findings that show AGEs piling up in the arterial plaque of people with heart disease as well as in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Glycation also has a hand in the formation of cataracts.
The Fix: If you can go cold turkey on processed sugar, great. If not, cut back as far as you can, and for the sweets you must eat, choose foods made with less heavily processed natural sugars, such as honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup or agave nectar, instead of refined (white) sugar.
“Although natural sugars aren’t much better for your health,” says Talbott, “foods sweetened naturally tend to be less refined and have more whole grains, and that is a benefit for reducing sugar load.” One more tip: Don’t swap your sugar for artificial sweeteners. There’s evidence that they can do as much or more damage to your health in other ways (see “Poor Substitutes” in the December 2007 archives).
Bad Habit No. 3 — Carbo-loading — even when you’re not training
Big Offender: Refined, starchy carbohydrates (healthy carbs stripped of all the good stuff)
How It Ages You: Refined carbs are simply sugars in disguise. “Every starch turns into sugar the minute it hits your bloodstream,” says Lodge. Beyond glycosylation, refined carbs set the stage for insulin resistance.
After a meal laden with refined carbohydrates, the body’s blood-sugar levels soar, and the pancreas sprays insulin into the bloodstream to help cells convert the food’s energy (glucose) into fuel. But the body often miscalculates and releases too much insulin because (again) evolution hasn’t kept pace with the modern diet. “If you eat four slices of Wonder Bread, that’s the food-density equivalent of one of your ancestors killing and eating an entire elk out on the savanna,” says Lodge. “Your body reacts with a massive surge of chemicals to digest all the stuff it thinks you just ate.”
As a result of too much insulin, blood-sugar levels drop, and 30 minutes later you’re hungry again, he says. “The body wasn’t designed for this yo-yo effect. All it can do is break apart in bits and pieces, which is exactly what happens.” The technical term for this effect is insulin resistance, a precursor to such age-related diseases as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
The Fix: Stick to complex carbohydrates, such as legumes, vegetables and 100 percent whole grains. Because the outer layers of the grain are left intact, whole grains take longer for the body to digest, and the sugar is released in a slow, steady stream.
Scrutinize food labels, says Oz: “In general, I tell folks to eat whatever sugar they want as long as the food is nutrient rich. However, if nutrients are limited, try to avoid any food that has more than 4 grams of simple carbohydrates or sugar per serving. Another option is to avoid simple carbs if they are listed in the first five ingredients. Instead, emphasize complex carbohydrates that offer a hefty dose of fiber and nutrients.”
Bad Habit No. 4 — Waiting until you’re really hungry before eating
Big Offender: Ghrelin (a hormone made by the digestive system that gooses appetite)
How It Ages You: Waiting too long between meals is one of the surest ways to age the body before its time, says Oz. That’s because hunger pangs can lead to overeating, which may lead to obesity. Here’s how it works: A growling stomach signals “hunger” in the brain by releasing the hormone ghrelin. The problem is that it takes 30 minutes for ghrelin levels to return to normal once you’ve started to nosh. So odds are you’ll overeat.
The Fix: Don’t wait to eat until you’re ready to chew your arm off; instead, keep a little food in your stomach at all times, advises Oz. Schedule regular snack or meal breaks into your day, and keep a stash of healthy mini-meals available for when you’re on the go. Eat a balance of healthy proteins, carbs and fats at each meal, choosing whole foods (which digest more gradually) whenever possible.
No one eats perfectly all the time. And, as noted, occasional digressions aren’t worth stressing over. But each of us stands to benefit from improving the eating patterns that are doing our bodies and minds the most harm. Chip away at these worst-offender habits and your odds of feeling great and aging healthfully climb exponentially.
“Sure, putting changes like these in play may be a little challenging at first,” says Lodge, “but this is no place to sell yourself short: Having a wonderful, long life is worth a little bit of effort.”
Bad Habit No. 5 — Eating at your desk — or in the car, or while stressed in any way.
Big Offender: Cortisol (a stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands)
How It Ages You: Stress hormones — automatically released by the body under all kinds of stressful circumstances — are antithetical to digestion in a couple of ways. First, the release of adrenaline and cortisol — “fight-or-flight” chemicals — diverts blood toward your limbs and away from your stomach and intestines, which hinders your intestines’ ability to break down food and absorb nutrients. As a result, digestion grinds to a halt and food ferments, sending unusual metabolites into the bloodstream, explains Kevin Spelman, PhD, a research scientist in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.
Second, stress throws off the gut’s acidity and, therefore, its ability to absorb certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12. As if that weren’t enough, cortisol also suppresses the body’s repair mechanisms. “By eating when you’re stressed, it’s as if you are damaging your body and locking out the repair crews,” says Henry Lodge, MD, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond (Workman Publishing, 2004). And finally, eating while stressed or distracted is also more likely to lead to unconscious eating, meaning you’ll be vulnerable to eating more than you intended or be prone to eating foods you would never have intended to eat under better circumstances.
The Fix: Slow down at mealtime. Instead of munching behind the wheel or at your desk, find a spot where you can relax and focus on your food and the pleasure of eating. If possible, eat with others whose company you enjoy, or eat in a place that makes you feel safe and happy. At home, create a relaxing atmosphere; set the table and light a candle, suggests Spelman: “Just as your senses assimilate that environment in a pleasant way, your body will assimilate food in a more efficient way.”
By Catherine Guthrie, Experience Life.
Catherine Guthrie is a Bloomington, Ind.–based writer.