You’ve probably heard the saying that “you are what you eat.” But have you ever considered that you may also be “as old as what you eat?”
The Biochemistry of Aging
I’ve written about different aspects of metabolism and biochemistry that can become unbalanced and lead to ill health, weight gain, poor performance and even faster aging at the cellular level. I refer to each of these four major aspects of cellular biochemistry as “pillars” of health: oxidation, inflammation, glycation and allostation. Any imbalances in any of these pillars can lead to more cellular stress, tissue dysfunction and accelerated aging.
Scientists and doctors agree that excessive inflammation can lead to accelerated tissue damage and breakdown, so it makes sense to control inflammation to reduce cellular stress and promote overall health.
But if you look deeper to find the causes of inflammation, you quickly see other factors that you can control. Because oxidation caused by free radicals leads to inflammation at the cellular level, why not also control oxidation as another “trigger” of cellular stress?
Great idea — but why not look even farther up the chain of events to see if you can control or modulate the causes of oxidation? Doing this shows that cell damage caused by overexposure to certain sugars (glycation) can lead to oxidation, which can lead to inflammation.
When you look even higher up the stream you see that an imbalance in stress hormones like cortisol, and the resulting inability to adapt to and recover from stress (allostation) can lead to glycation, which can lead to oxidation, which in turn leads to inflammation.
How Foods Age You
The term “AGEs” refers to advanced glycation end-products that cause cells to lose functionality and basically “age” faster. AGEs accumulate very quickly in response to three processes:
Direct Glycation: This can occur whenever your blood sugar is too high for too long (eating the wrong foods, too many refined carbs, etc.).
Inflammation: This can be exacerbated by an imbalance between inflammatory fatty acids (like omega-6) and anti-inflammatory fatty acids (like omega-3). Having too many omega-6s in your diet can lead to an overproduction of inflammatory compounds that can lead to faster cellular aging and dysfunction.
Stress: This can include mental/emotional issues, overexercise or sleep deprivation. All of these stressors lead to a chronic overexposure to cortisol, a primary stress hormone that can interfere with normal control of both blood sugar and inflammation. Too much cortisol sort of “short circuits” your attempts to control glucose and inflammatory compounds. The bottom line is that aging happens faster when you’re stressed and eating highly processed foods, which are high in sugar and omega-6 fatty acids.
Top Food Swaps
Avoid partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs)
These oils can promote inflammation. While the FDA has banned the use of unhealthy trans fats, small amounts of PHOs can still be lurking in your foods, so check labels and read ingredient lists to see if “partially hydrogenated oil” might be lurking in your favorite foods. Some of the most common offenders include coffee creamer, cookies, frozen pizza, microwave popcorn and stick margarine.
Switch to palm oil.
Palm oil is a tropical oil that is more saturated compared to PHOs, but it has a much healthier metabolic profile. This makes palm oil a much less inflammatory choice for many foods and one that many food companies are moving toward as a replacement for trans fats. Conventional palm oil contributes to deforestation and wildlife reduction, so be sure to choose one that's sustainable and 100 percent RSPO certified (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). And because it's rich in saturated fat, it’s important to follow the American Heart Association recommendations to limit overall saturated fats to less than 10 percent of total calories a day. Click the link for more pros and cons about palm oil.
Avoid high-sugar foods and foods with a high glycemic index.
These include sodas and energy drinks, white bread, chips and sweetened cereal. The glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) refer to how foods affect blood sugar and insulin. The lower a food’s glycemic index or glycemic load, the less it affects blood sugar and insulin levels and the more effective it may be in controlling appetite and body weight.
Refined carbs are really just different forms of simple sugars in disguise, and starchy carbs turn into sugar the minute they hit the bloodstream. The result is a blood sugar spike, often followed by a crash, with the endgame being a higher risk for diabetes, metabolic syndrome and weight gain. In addition, crashing and spiking blood sugar, wreaks hormonal havoc, promotes inflammation and drives unhealthy food cravings.
Excess sugar ages you in many ways. It can slow your body’s repair mechanism, causes wrinkles to happen faster and may even lead to age-related complaints like memory loss. Instead, if you need to satisfy a temporary sweet tooth, look for foods made with less heavily processed natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup. And be sure that the sugar is combined with some fat and protein to lessen the rise in blood sugar.
Switch to foods that are less processed and foods that have a lower GI/GL.
Eat more whole-food carbs with lower GI/GL, such as vegetables, legumes and whole-kernel grains. Cut back on the sugar you use in recipes at home, and try adding less sugar to your coffee, tea and other drinks you consume frequently.
On their own, sugar substitutes like honey, brown-rice syrup, agave nectar and others aren’t really that much better than plain white sugar. The biggest difference is that foods sweetened with alternative forms of sugar also tend to be less refined in general — perhaps containing more whole grains or higher protein content — and that can often be an important benefit for reducing sugar load.
Overall, focus on food as an entire package and not just on whether it contains a refined carb or not (e.g., even a “bad” refined carb like white bread can be considered “nonlethal” if you eat it with peanut butter).
Avoid going too long between meals and snacks.
When your stomach is empty, its secretion of ghrelin, also called the “hunger hormone,” doubles. When the stomach is full, secretion of ghrelin slows and its hormonal opposite, leptin, signals that the body is satiated, so you feel full. But it can take 20 minutes for this process to occur.
During this time, it’s easy to overeat, especially when you’re starving and your brain is screaming at you to eat sugar. When you gorge on sugar and refined carbs you eat more, your blood sugar spikes higher and your body stores even more calories for later because it’s in feast-or-famine mode. Significantly, frequent blood sugar spikes are linked to insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and to body-wide inflammation.
Switch to planning your meals and snacks.
Make sure you eat throughout the day so you’re getting a balanced blend of smart carbs, lean protein and healthy fats on a consistent basis every few hours. This approach keeps your metabolism balanced so your appetite, energy, mental focus and fat-burning machinery are functioning at top capacity.
Dr. Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FAIS, FACN, is a nutritional biochemist and exercise physiologist and the author of more than a dozen books on nutrition and health. His most recent book is Best Future You: Harnessing Your Body’s Biochemistry to Achieve Balance in Body, Mind, and Spirit.