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).