Can what you eat help you age gracefully?
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
It seems we're all trying to find the "magic bullet" that delays the natural aging process. Put an antiaging label on most any product, and it flies off the shelves.
Yet if you're trying to look your best without going under the knife, a secret ingredient might be right under your nose. Some experts say one answer to aging gracefully can be found in the grocery store -- in fruits, vegetables, green tea, and a host of other healthful foods that are rich in antioxidants and other potentially age-deterring compounds.
What Is Aging?
Of course, the signs of aging include not only wrinkles, but also memory loss, decreased brain function, and an increasing risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. Healthy aging is also defined as living a longer, healthier life. And many studies have documented the link between a healthy diet and prevention of age-related or chronic diseases.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity, adequate rest, avoiding tobacco, and a diet full of healthy foods and beverages can be the best defense against aging.
"Dietary choices are critical to delay the onset of aging and age-related diseases, and the sooner you start, the greater the benefit," says Susan Moores, RD, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.
Antioxidants and Inflammation
Some foods and beverages contain powerful substances called phytonutrients that some believe are capable of unlocking the key to longevity. Phytonutrients, which are members of the antioxidant family, gobble up "free radicals" -- oxygen molecules that play a role in the onset of illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer's disease.
As we age, we become more susceptible to the long-term effects of oxidative stress (a condition where the body basically has too many free radicals) and inflammation on the cellular level. The theory is that antioxidants and other age-defying compounds help cells ward off damage from free radicals and minimize the impact of aging.
Beyond antioxidants, some other compounds in foods can affect aging. They can be classified according to their impact on inflammation at the cellular level, experts say.
"All foods fit into three categories: pro-inflammatory, neutral, or anti-inflammatory," says dermatologist and best-selling author, Nicholas Perricone, MD.
Perricone says you can help to slow aging at the cellular level by choosing foods that are anti-inflammatory and rich in antioxidants.
"Age-related changes may be reversed by consuming foods and beverages that are rich in a variety of compounds, including antioxidants, and are anti-inflammatory, such as cold-water fish and richly colored fruits and vegetables," he says.
On the other hand, foods classified as pro-inflammatory can accelerate aging, Perricone says.
If "we eat large amounts of saturated or trans fatty acids, sugars, and starches, insulin levels surge and trigger an anti-inflammatory response and accelerate the aging process," says Perricone.
While the benefits to eating healthy are many, Perricone notes that diet is certainly not the only factor that affects the aging process.
"Stress, hormones, ultraviolet light, and a weakened immune system also contribute to aging," he says.
Still, making smart lifestyle choices are within your control, and are among the best things you can do to help prevent disease and retard aging.
Food for Healthy Aging
For maximum benefits, experts say, you should load up on a variety of healthy foods.
"We know about antioxidants and anti-inflammatory activities of foods, but we suspect there could be so much more going on beyond attacking free radicals that promote health and ward off disease," says Moores.
Moores suggests adding these foods and beverages into your eating plan for good health and to reduce the signs of aging:
- Fish. Follow the guidelines of the American Heart Association and eat twice weekly, especially the fatty kind that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This is a powerful anti-inflammatory food that offers a multitude of health benefits.
- Fruits and vegetables are powerhouses of antioxidants. Aim for a variety of colorful produce. Enjoy at least 5 servings per day for the maximum benefits.
- Whole grains provide soluble fiber to help lower blood cholesterol levels, and also have phytonutrient content equal to any fruit or vegetable. Strive for at least 3 daily servings.
- Legumes are unsung heroes, packed with nutrients similar to fruits and vegetables and with very few calories. Add them to your diet 3 to 4 times a week.
- Yogurt has all the benefits of dairy foods, plus probiotics that help add healthy bacteria to the intestines. Moores recommends eating a yogurt with active cultures as one of your 3 dairy servings each day.
- Nuts are a great source of B vitamins that are good for your heart and your brain. The healthy fats in nuts benefit the elastin and collagen in skin, helping to maintaining skin's structure and keep it resilient. Small portions are advised, as nuts are high in calories.
- Water is essential for hydration of the skin, muscles, circulation, and all organs in the body. Enjoy 3-4 glasses of pure water in addition to other liquids and watery foods.
In addition, Perricone suggests these 10 "super-foods," chosen because of their anti- inflammatory activity:
- Acai fruit (found in health stores)
- Allium vegetables: garlic, onions, leeks, scallions, chives, and shallots
- Green foods, such as wheatgrass
- Buckwheat, both seeds and grains
- Beans and lentils
- Hot peppers
- Nuts and seeds
- Yogurt and kefir
What Else Can You Do?
Micronutrients from food and beverages offer a wealth of health benefits. But when it comes to preserving the skin, some work better as topical applications such as creams.
"Drinking 6-10 small cups of green tea daily adds health-promoting catechins ... but no matter how much green tea you drink, your blood level will never be high enough to retard or reverse skin changes," says researcher Stephen Hsu, PhD. His research found antiaging benefits when green tea polyphenols were applied directly to skin, and "protected the skin by absorbing ultraviolet light and eliminating free radicals."
A healthy diet and lifestyle may improve your health and keep you feeling young but don't expect wrinkles to disappear. The impact of diet on reversing signs of skin aging is overrated, says Atlanta-based dermatologist, Kenneth Ellner, MD.
"Skin aging is related primarily to genetics and exposure to the sun," he says. "If you want to age gracefully, stay out of the sun, use sunscreen, don't smoke, eat a healthy diet, and drink plenty of water."
To do your best to ward off aging, experts agree that a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, wearing sunscreen, avoiding tobacco, regular sleep, and a nutritious diet is the answer.
"If you are already engaging in healthy habits, take it a step further and try to fine-tune your diet to achieve added health benefits by adding new foods to your diet," advises Elisa Zied, RD, author of What to Eat.
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic "Recipe Doctor" Elaine Magee has devised these recipes using foods with antiaging properties.Salmon Pecan Patties
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 serving "fatty fish with 1 tsp oil" + 1 serving "low-fat crackers" or 1 slice of "bread."
14.75-ounce can salmon (or 1 1/2 cups cooked salmon pieces, firmly packed)
1 teaspoon olive or canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2/3 cup cracker crumbs (to make these, add whatever crackers you like -- maybe wheat crackers, or even rosemary garlic crackers -- to a small food processor and pulse until fine crumbs form)
1 large egg (higher omega-3 variety if available), beaten
2 tablespoons egg substitute
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (or 1 1/2 tablespoon parsley flakes)
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1/4 cup toasted pecan pieces (toast by heating in nonstick frying pan over medium heat until lightly brown -- about 2 minutes)
2 teaspoons olive or canola oil
- Drain salmon, picking out any pieces of bones or skin, and flake what is left. Add the salmon flakes to a large mixing bowl.
- Add 1 teaspoon oil to a small nonstick frying pan and heat over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, turning often, until golden and tender.
- Add onions to the salmon in mixing bowl, along with half of the cracker crumbs (1/3 cup), beaten egg, egg substitute, parsley, and mustard and beat on low speed to blend. Add pecan pieces and briefly beat on low speed until mixed in.
- Shape the mixture into 6 patties (about 1/2-inch thick). Press both sides of each patty into the remaining cracker crumbs to lightly coat.
- Begin to heat a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 2 teaspoons of oil and spread evenly in the pan. Cook the patties until nicely browned on both sides.
Yield: 3 servings (2 patties each)
Per serving: 369 calories, 26 g protein, 25 g carbohydrate, 18 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat, 9.5 g monounsaturated fat, 5.7 g polyunsaturated fat), 120 mg cholesterol, 2.5 g fiber, 274 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 44%.
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 serving of fatty fish without added fat.
This recipe was inspired by chef Judson Simpson, executive chef for the House of Commons in Canada.1 1/2 pounds salmon fillets, boneless and skinless
2 cedar shingles -- untreated
Canola cooking spray
1 bunch watercress, picked and blanched
1 green onion, chopped
1/2 cup light vanilla yogurt
1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
2 tablespoons light sour cream
2 tablespoons fat-free half-and-half (or low-fat milk)
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
- Soak cedar shingles in water for 2 hours. Dry briefly, then coat the cooking side of the shingle with canola cooking spray.
- Place salmon fillets on the cedar shingles and bake at 425-degrees for 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the salmon (about 10-12 minutes per inch at the thickest end).
- Meanwhile, chop blanched watercress and add it to an 8-cup measure or medium-sized bowl, along with the green onions, yogurt, dill, sour cream, half-and-half or milk, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, black pepper and salt.
- Serve each salmon filet with a healthy dollop of the watercress yogurt sauce.
Per serving: 280 calories, 37 g protein, 4 g carbohydrate, 12 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 98 mg cholesterol, .2 g fiber, 269 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 40%.
Fun Fall Snack Mix
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Members: Journal as 2 tablespoons nuts OR 1 portion medium dessert.This fruit and nut mixture offers a taste of fall, with the pumpkin spice and dried cranberries.
1 cup diced dried apricots
1/2 cup dried cherries or cranberries
1/2 cup unsalted or lightly salted roasted almonds or sunflower seeds
1 1/2 cup unsalted or lightly salted roasted peanuts
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/3 cup white chocolate chips (optional)
- Add all of the ingredients to a gallon-sized plastic bag and seal.
- Toss the bag around to mix all of the ingredients well.
Yield: Makes 3 1/2 cups or 10 servings (1/3 cup each); or 4 cups if adding white chocolate chips
Per serving (1/3 cup each): 208 calories, 7 g protein, 19 g carbohydrate, 14.5 g fat (1.9 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, 2 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 56%.
NOTE: If you add the white chocolate chips, it will add 30 calories, 2 grams fat, and 1 gram saturated fat to each serving.
Tangerine FreezeWebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal a small serving as 1/2 cup low-fat yogurt sweetened with fruit or frozen + 1 portion fresh fruit.
This is a great recipe to try if you're looking for a way to "hide" yogurt. You'll never know there's yogurt in this fruity freeze.
1 cup tangerine or orange segments (mandarin oranges from can or jar, drained, can also be used)
6 to 8 ounces orange-flavored yogurt (light or regular can be used)
1/3 cup orange or tangerine juice (as fresh as possible)
1 cup crushed ice
- Place tangerine or orange segments in a plastic bag or container to freeze for at least an hour.
- Add frozen tangerine or orange segments to blender or food processor along with the yogurt and orange juice. Blend until smooth. Add in a cup of crushed ice and blend until smooth.
- Pour into a tall glass or two smaller glasses and serve.
Yield: 1 tall glass or two small smoothies
Per small serving: 148 calories, 4.5 g protein, 31 g carbohydrate, 1.2 g fat, .6 g saturated fat, 3.5 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 51 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 7%.
Published July 07, 2006.
Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee
SOURCES: Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, June 2005; 1049. Nutrition, March 2006:295. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 2000; 19:312S-319S. Neurobiology of Aging, Sept. 2002: pp 747. Nicholas Perricone, MD, author, The Perricone Weight Loss Diet. Kenneth Ellner, MD, dermatologist, Atlanta. G. Susan Moores, RD, spokesperson, American Dietetic Association. Stephen Hsu, PhD, associate professor, School of Density, Medical College of Georgia. Elisa Zied, MS, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; and author, What to Eat.
©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.
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