Eat Nutritious Food, Less of It, and Live Longer

It’s been a longstanding trend: we expect to live longer lives than our parents. But now the tide is turning. Recent research suggests that if present trends continue young Americans (those born between 1964 and 1989) will die earlier than their nearest and dearest ancestors.

As a group our young people are in poor physical health. One study identified an increased incidence of chronic inflammation and metabolic syndrome (a cluster of markers including hypertension, obesity, and insulin resistance.) These conditions are precursors to more serious diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, which are categorized as diseases of aging. Apparently, today’s young people are growing old before their time. Research into the biological aspects of aging hints at why this may be the case.

Aging is a cellular process

Aging is complex. It begins in your cells, which are constantly dividing and reproducing. This process slows down naturally with age but how quickly cells age and the damage they accumulate differs among people.

Consequently, there may be a gap between the age of your cells (your biological age) and how old you are in years. No single theory of aging has all the answers but useful strategies for slowing down the process of aging are emerging from research into cellular health.

Free Radicals and Aging

You’ve probably heard of free radicals. These unstable molecules, which are a normal by-product of your cells, have attracted the interest of aging researchers for well over fifty years. Lifestyle factors like a poor diet and exposure to toxins accelerate their creation.

One type of free radical is reactive oxygen species (ROS.) High concentrations of ROS spark a chain reaction known as oxidative stress, which has been linked with numerous chronic diseases, as well as accelerated aging.

Westernized Diets and Oxidative Stress

One stimulus for oxidative stress is the “westernized” diet. This dietary pattern is low in plant foods and high in “hyperpalatable” manufactured foods that provide copious quantities of salt, refined sugars, and unhealthy fats. Recent research has shown that children and teen-agers obtain two-thirds of their calories from ultra-processed foods. The consumption of these foods has been linked with negative health outcomes, including obesity, type 2 diabetes and even cancer. It’s also likely these unhealthy diets factor into the unnerving statistics on shortening lifespans.

Consider recent research which connects the intake of ultra-processed foods with increased oxidative stress in healthy adolescents. Oxidative stress is linked with chronic inflammation and metabolic diseases — the same conditions that are on the rise in today’s young people.

Maintain Your Cellular Power Plant

The connections between oxidative stress and accelerated aging is currently a hot topic for research. One focus is the energy-producing structures in your cells. Known as mitochondria, these little workhorses are easily damaged by environmental impacts like poor nutrition and exposure to toxins. Damaged mitochondria are prolific producers of free radicals, contributing to oxidative stress. 

Reduce Calories and Tidy Up Your Cells

Damaged mitochondria can undermine your health and you don’t want too many hanging around like dead skin clogging your pores. Your body understand this, and it helps to keep you healthy by regularly tackling the job of cellular housekeeping.  Periodically it sweeps up and discards injured cells, a process known as autophagy.

Autophagy is a complex process. To oversimplify, by getting rid of damaged mitochondria it seems to ward off disease. Research shows you can propel autography into overdrive by limiting your consumption of calories. This approach, which is known as calorie restriction (or intermittent fasting) involves reducing your daily intake of calories by about one third while maintaining the level of nutrients you consume.

Scientists don’t fully understand how it works but a growing body of research suggests that regulating autophagy with periods of calorie restriction can slow down the onset of disability and disease and extend longevity. Restricting calories appears to stress your cells, forcing them to work more efficiently. It also activates certain biological pathways, triggering resistance to oxidative stress.

Plant Foods Are the Best Source of Antioxidants

Scientists are taking a hard look at foods that can be used to harness the power of autophagy and unsurprisingly those with antioxidant capacity are on the inside track. Beneficial compounds in certain plant foods, including resveratrol (grapes and berries), curcumin (turmeric) and EGCJ (green tea) have been shown to encourage autophagy.

However, you don’t need to focus on eating specialized foods to support these processes. Plant foods are the best source of antioxidants, including vitamins E and C and phytonutrients like beta carotene and lycopene. Antioxidants wipe up free radicals, helping to keep oxidative stress at bay.

A balanced diet of nutritious whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes also supports mitochondrial health. By helping to prevent cell damage, it tones down free radical production. On the other hand, a diet heavily weighted toward ultra-processed foods, which are high in calories and low in nutrients has the opposite effect. Our young people are eating too many of these unhealthy foods, which generate oxidative stress, increasing their vulnerability to chronic conditions that age them well before their time. And at least one study has shown that if a young adult switched their eating pattern away from the typical Westernized diet to a more balanced one focused on whole foods, they could add more than a decade to their life expectancy.

Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate:  What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease. Visit her at www.judithfinlayson.com.

Selected Resources 

Zheng, H. et al. Are Recent Cohorts Getting Worse? Trends in U.S. Adult Physiological Status, Mental Health, and Health behaviors across a Century of Birth Cohorts. American Journal of Epidemiology 2021.

Wang, L et al. Trends in Consumption of Ultraprocessed Foods Among US Youths Aged 2 – 19 years, 1999-2018. JAMA 2021.

Edalati, S et al. Higher ultra-processed food intake is associated with higher DNA damage in healthy adolescents. British Journal of Nutrition. 2021.

Madeo, F et al. Essential role for autophagy in life span extension. The Journal of Clinical Investigation 2015.

Bakula, D. et al. Mitophaging: Mitophagy in Aging and Disease. Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology 2020.

Hall, KD et al. Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain. Cell Metabolism 2019

Xie, J. et al. Autopgraphy-associated signal pathways of functional foods for chronic diseases. Food Science and Human Wellness 2019.

Flanagan, E. et al. Calorie Restriction and Aging in Humans. Annual Review of Nutrition 2020.

Fadnes, l. et al. Estimating impact of food choices on life expectancy: A modeling study. PLOS Medicine 2022.

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