You might be getting older, but that doesn’t mean you have to age. The latest research is showing that much of what we take for granted as the inevitable consequences of aging is now known to have much more to do with how we take care of ourselves, not aging per se. Elizabeth Somer, Registered Dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Sexy. gave us helpful hints on how to turn back the clock.
1. Come on, I don’t have to worry about wrinkles and gray hair? What do you mean aging isn’t inevitable?
The belief that aging is inevitable is in many cases a myth. It is not age, but years of abuse that wear down our bodies. In fact, according to the National Institutes on Aging, up to 85% of the aging processes is within our control! Most aspects of aging can be slowed or completely avoided - from sun spots and wrinkles to age-related diseases like heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis to memory loss and middle-age spread and even to the frailty, feebleness, and loss of independence that so many of us fear - by making a few simple changes in what we eat, when we move, and how we think. Even 66% brain aging is now recognized to be without our control! There is every reason to expect we can live robustly, passionately, vitally into our 90s, 100s, and beyond.
2. When should we start?
Aging starts much earlier than you think, as early as your 20s, maybe even earlier. It’s only after the accumulation of damage has progressed that you notice the overt signs of aging. That means, the sooner you start taking charge of your aging process, the longer you will remain youthful and vital. However, it’s never to late to reap the rewards if you’re willing to make the changes. Like Lily Tomlin said, “I always knew I would be somebody, I just should have been more specific.” You need to be specific about how you take care of yourself if you want to slow the hands of time.
3. What is the most important dietary secret to staying young?
Colorful fruits and vegetables. If you did nothing else but double your current intake, you’d be well on your way to looking, feeling, and acting 20 years younger. Most Americans average 3 to 4 servings a day and one of those servings is French fries, which accelerate the aging process. Instead aim for at least 8 fresh fruits and vegetables. These foods are Mother Nature’s powerhouses of phytochemicals and antioxidants that protect cells from free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules that we breath in from air pollution, consume in fatty and fried foods, and that our bodies make during normal metabolic processes attack, alter, and destroy cells. Free radicals are considered major players in many degenerative diseases like heart disease and cancer and now are suspected to contribute to the wear and tear to the body that is associated with aging. Researchers at UC Berkeley estimate that even a healthy body experiences at least 10,000 free radical “hits” everyday. Those numbers escalate if a person smokes and as we age. Boosting your antioxidant defenses can slow or even halt this damage.
It’s no wonder that literally 1000s of studies spanning decades of research show repeatedly that people who eat the most fruits and vegetables have the lowest risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, cataracts, and almost all age-related diseases. They look younger with fewer wrinkles and less risk for skin cancer. They remember more at every age, the have an easier time managing their weight, and they live longer. One study that compared the health of centenarians with their younger 70-year-old friends found that the centenarians were healthier and were more mentally alert. Turns out the key difference in the two groups’ diets was the centenarians ate the most produce.
What to do? Aim for at least 8 of the richest colored produce in your daily diet, including carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, blueberries, mangos, kiwi, and dried plums.
4. What is the second most important diet tip for staying young?
Stay lean. With almost 7 out of every 10 Americans now battling a serious weight problem, just dropping the pounds alone would add years to your life and life to your years. Even if you can’t get down to an ideal body weight, people who are overweight would lower their risk for most age-related diseases and would extend those healthy years if they dropped 10% of their current body weight. Getting rid of the love handles is right up there with quitting smoking as a top way to stretch the healthy middle years into your 70s and 80s.
5. Weight loss is not an easy step to staying young.
No. But the first place to start is to cut back on processed and fast foods, which not only pack on the pounds, but escalate the aging process. Numerous studies have found that the more processed and fast foods we eat, the heavier and sicker we are. In one study from USDA Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland, people who ate fast food consumed diets too high in calories. (Calories increased and nutrients decreased as fast food intake increased, and calorie intake was higher on days when people ate fast foods than on days when they avoided the drive through.) Not surprisingly, people who chose fast food on at least one survey day also were heavier than people who avoid fast food. Fast food meals high in meat and fried foods also add years to your life. Studies show, for example, that women who daily eat meat have a 50% higher risk of developing heart disease compared to women who eat little or no meat. Saturated fats and trans fats in doughnuts, chips, margarines, cookies, crackers, and other processed foods also increase the risk for a host of age-related diseases, including heart disease and cancer.
6. You say that real food is the way to add years to your life. What do you mean?
Focus on the foods on which our bodies thrive. The human body is much like a car, which is built on an assembly line with an engine designed to run on gasoline. You wouldn’t dream of putting sawdust or gravel in the gas tank and expect your car to run right. Our bodies were built on an evolutionary assembly line designed to run on real foods - whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, lean meat - but we are eating the nutritional equivalent of sawdust by feasting on processed junk...and then we wonder why we are aging too fast, succumb to heart disease, memory loss, and other age-related diseases unheard of in societies where people eat more in tune with their bodies’ needs.
What to do: Eat whole grains instead of refined grains, corn instead of corn chips, potatoes instead of potato chips, nonfat milk instead of ice cream, and oatmeal instead of granola bars and you automatically will cut back on sugar, fat, and salt and increase your intake of age-defying fibers, vitamins, and minerals. Aim for 5 servings a week of beans. Not only are they high in fiber and low in fat, but beans supply an arsenal of phytochemicals, such as saponins that lower heart disease risk and phytosterols that lower cancer risk. Regularly adding beans to your diet can increase your life expectancy by 13%.
7. You also have a few simple lifestyle tricks to stay young. What are those?
1. Floss: Daily flossing reduces the amount of gum disease that causes infection and inflammation throughout the body, contributing to atherosclerosis and heart disease.
2. Exercise every day. This is the true fountain of youth. People who stay physically active are mentally sharper, at lower risk for all age-related diseases, happier, more energized, and live longer than their couch potato counterparts. They even report better sex lives!
3. Stay connected. Social contact is associated with better brain health throughout life, less depression, and increased life expectancy.
4. Challenge yourself. Do crosswords, jig saw puzzles, learn French, brush your teeth with the opposite hand, don’t use a GPS and get lost. The more you challenge your brain, the more nerve pathways you develop to counter any loss of function as we age.
8. This sounds like a lot of work just to stay young.
If someone said they had a pill that would slow aging, help prevent every age-related disease from heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer to memory loss, frailty, feebleness, and middle-age spread, and it would help you feel and look younger for the rest of you life, and it had no side effects other than improved mood, energy level, and self image, would you take it? You'd be crazy not to! Well, it may not be a pill, but a few simple changes in your diet (and exercise) will provide all those benefits.