How much control do you have over aging?
Aging is a normal process that happens to everyone. Your body is equipped with health defenses such as immunity to help fight off things that may harm it, such as too much sugar or cigarette smoke. The more your body is exposed to harmful things, the more likely it is that your body will age more quickly, says Dr. William W. Li, author of The New York Times bestselling book “Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself” and president of the Angiogenesis Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Several factors can affect your aging process, including:
— Environmental stressors, such as chemical exposure and air pollution.
— Getting enough sleep.
— How effectively you manage stress.
— How much physical activity you get.
— What you eat.
— Whether or not you smoke.
As you get older, you’re also more prone to chronic inflammation, which is a normal process of the immune system to fight infections. However, excessive and recurring inflammation can interfere with your immune system’s ability to fight disease. And it can cause premature aging of your cells.
How does food affect aging?
The foods you eat and the drinks you choose play a role in the aging process. Picking foods that have a low nutritional value — like sugary or greasy foods — can accelerate inflammation, says culinary nutritionist Christine Bendana, founder and chef at Prep YoSelf in Austin, Texas. In contrast, eating foods with anti-inflammatory properties can help your immune system fight off disease and lower your risk for illness.
Additionally, eating adequate protein can help to preserve muscle mass. The loss of muscle mass, also called sarcopenia, is something that usually occurs as we get older, says registered dietitian Katie Dodd, who’s a board certified specialist in gerontological nutrition and owner of the Geriatric Dietitian in Medford, Oregon. Preserving muscle mass as you age can help lower your risk for falls and fractures.
Why is it important to slow down aging?
By slowing down aging through healthier eating, you do a couple of things to help your body:
— You help lower your risk of certain chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.
— Your body stays stronger, and you can maintain muscle mass longer. The loss of muscle can be more significant if you don’t make an effort to eat a healthy diet and slow muscle loss, Dodd says.
— You increase your chance of having a longer, healthier life, says registered dietitian Amylee Amos, founder of the Amos Institute in Los Angeles.
Here are some foods that can speed up aging and what to eat instead.
White pasta and white bread
White pasta and white bread are high in refined carbohydrates. That means they can cause your blood sugar level to rise and lead to inflammation in the body. They also can leave you feeling hungry a couple of hours later as they contain little fiber.
What to eat instead: Spiralized vegetable noodles such as zucchini noodles and squash noodles can be used as replacements for white pasta, Bendana says. Whole grain pasta and pasta made from bean sources like lentils also are healthier choices. Whole grain breads are a healthier bread product. These choices will be higher in fiber and provide more nutrients.
Processed meats such as hot dogs, ham, corned beef and sausages can speed up aging because they often are high in saturated fat, sodium and have unhealthy additives such as sodium nitrate, Li says.
In a study of 6,000 people, processed meat was associated with faster aging, according to an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study published in 2008. These processed meats also tend to be higher in calories, and that can lead to weight gain and obesity.
What to eat instead: Fatty fish like salmon provides heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Lean chicken and turkey also are healthier meat sources.
French fries may be tasty, but that doesn’t make them healthy. Because they’re fried in oil at high temperatures, they can release free radicals, a type of molecule associated with aging and disease, Bendana says. The same idea applies to other fried foods, like fried chicken.
In addition, they are high in calories, making it easier to gain weight or become obese. Obesity puts you at risk for other diseases, including diabetes and cancer. French fries are also high in salt and fat — both contributors to heart disease. The American Heart Association presidential advisory on dietary fats and cardiovascular disease recommends lowering the intake of saturated fat, a “bad” fat.
What to eat instead: Make sweet potato or parsnip fries with an appliance called an air fryer. This enables you to prepare foods that are typically deep fried without the saturated fat or free radicals. In fact, foods prepped in an air fryer aren’t actually fried. They’re cooked at a high temperature with a fan. The circulation of air helps to make the food exterior more crispy. You also can prepare parsnip fries or sweet potato fries in the oven, Bendana suggests. Lightly coat them with olive oil and seasonings like paprika and garlic powder. Add just a sprinkle of salt. Roast them in the oven at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.
Drinking too much alcohol can increase your chances of developing several health problems associated with aging, according to the National Institute on Aging. That includes:
— Heart problems.
— High blood pressure.
— Liver damage.
— Memory loss.
You’re likely to be less careful when you’re drinking alcohol, which makes you more prone to falls and accidents. Alcohol is a factor in 60% of falls, the NIA reports.
What to have instead: Flavored sparkling water or iced tea without sugar can add some pizzazz when you’re ready to kick back without the buzz. Or try the occasional mocktail served in a wine glass, and you’ll feel like you’re celebrating a special event without the negative effects from alcoholic drinks.
Soda is usually high in sugar, which can increase your blood sugar levels. Over time, that can put you at a higher risk for diabetes. A 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health of 5,309 people found that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages helped to accelerate aging.
One 12-ounce cola has 39 grams of sugar, for example. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar intake to no more than 100 calories (25 grams) a day for women and 150 calories (36 grams) for men. (There are four calories in one gram of sugar.)
What to drink instead: Coffee, tea and water are better choices than soda. Do your best to limit your sugar intake via your coffee and tea choices. Those extras can add up. If you love soda for its sweet flavor, snack instead on blueberries, which are full of fiber and vitamin C.
Choosing the right foods
A few things to keep in mind as you think about foods that are healthier for you:
— Work with your health provider and a registered dietitian to choose the foods that are best specifically for you. A dietitian can help ensure you’re getting enough protein without exceeding your needs and suggest more whole, plant-based foods that promote longevity, Amos says. This should include whole grains, lean protein and fruits and vegetables.
— Read ingredient labels. Some foods you may think are healthy could be high in sugar or refined carbohydrates.
— The foods that speed up aging aren’t healthy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have them occasionally. “Eating a hot dog at a baseball game or enjoying some cookies at a party isn’t going to accelerate the aging process. It’s a balance of the whole diet,” Dodd says.
— Instead of focusing on what you can’t eat, focus instead on what you can and should eat to stay healthy.
Other tips to stave off aging
In addition to eating a healthy diet, make sure to:
— Hydrate. Staying adequately hydrated helps your immune system work properly. Water is the easiest way to stay hydrated, although other beverages count. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine recommends 91 ounces of water daily for women and 125 ounces daily for men. You can get that from both water and food. Hydrating foods include cucumbers, celery and watermelon.
— Get enough rest. Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
— Round out your physical activity. Exercise that gets your heart pumping is important for overall health, and strength exercises protect and build your muscle health, Dodd says. Balance exercises can help minimize your risk for falls as you get older. Yoga and Pilates often incorporate exercises that target balance.
— Manage your stress. Learn ways you can de-stress for when you feel overwhelmed.
Foods that age you:
— White pasta and white bread.
— Processed meats.
— French fries.
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