Plenty of scientific studies show that what you eat has a strong impact on healthy aging, as well as on the risks for diseases such as high blood pressure, cancer and diabetes.
But provocative new research suggests that the diet-aging equation might, in a broad way, be based on how diet affects chromosomes. Or more specifically, the caps on the ends of your chromosomes called telomeres.
Don’t worry. It won’t take an advanced biology degree to understand this new line of thinking. A quick definition of telomeres, along with a review of the latest research, explains why scientists think that having longer telomeres could equate to healthier aging and why eating foods like cereal fiber, salmon and olive oil (as well as exercising and learning to relax) might play a role in helping you age more gracefully at the cellular level.
(MORE: 4 Things You Can Fix About Your Aging Body)
What is a Telomere?
Picture those little caps on the end of shoelaces that keep them from fraying. Well, the body has little caps (telomeres) on the ends of chromosomes that protect them from damage. Throughout the lifespan, enzymes and different body processes are continually at work lengthening and shortening telomeres. Genetics, medication use and illnesses all influence telomere length.
Research also shows that telomeres shorten with age. Is this shortening in length the cause of aging? Perhaps. In fact, there’s a hypothesis floating around scientific circles that shorter telomeres could speed up the aging process while longer telomeres might protect against aging and put people at lower risk for chronic ailments of aging, like cancer and diabetes.
Note: This is all still early-stage research, but the findings are dramatic.
Diet and Longer Telomeres
Slowly but surely, scientists are building a case for the positive impact that diet can have on telomere length. A 2013 study on middle-aged and older-aged nurses links fiber, particularly cereal fiber, to longer telomere length.
And a whole slew of research reports that individual nutrients or foods like omega 3 fats (fatty fish) and vitamins (vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D and the B-vitamin folate) are connected to longer telomeres. Speculation is that these nutrients and antioxidant compounds might uphold DNA integrity and protect telomeres from damage due to inflammation and oxidative stress.
As part of a five-year diet intervention, Spanish researchers asked overweight older adults (aged 55 to 80) to follow a healthy Mediterranean diet — whole grains, lots of produce, healthy fats, like olive oil — and then followed measures of obesity: waist size, body mass index, waist to height ratio.
At the end of five years, participants showed improvements in obesity parameters and in telomere length.
The telomere diet study garnering the most attention is a 2013 report on men with early-stage prostate cancer. As part of this study, California researchers assigned some participants to a four-part lifestyle plan (plant-rich diet, 30-minutes of moderate exercise each day, stress reduction, weekly support meetings). Others were asked to make no changes at all.
The end result: Lifestyle changers saw a 10 percent increase in telomere length, while non-changers saw their telomeres shrink 3 percent.
“So often people think, ‘Oh, I have bad genes, there’s nothing I can do about it,’” says lead study author Dr. Dean Ornish, UCSF clinical professor of medicine and founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. “But these findings indicate that telomeres may lengthen to the degree that people change how they live.”
Ornish and his colleagues emphasize that these findings need to be confirmed by larger studies, but they suggest the results can be generalized to folks without prostate cancer.
Lifestyle Changes and Longer Telomeres
As you consider your food choices, keep in mind that other lifestyle strategies may also affect telomere length. Want to follow the complete program California researchers used and possibly lengthen your telomeres? Here it is in a nutshell:
Eat this: Mostly whole foods, including plant-based protein (whole grains, vegetables, fruits and seeds). Go easy on refined carbs (white flour and sugar) and fat (10 percent of your total calories is plenty).
Exercise: Aim for moderate aerobic pursuits, like walking. The goal is 30 minutes per day for six out of seven days per week.
Decompress: Devote an hour each day to stress management. Try gentle, yoga-style stretching, deep breathing techniques or quiet meditation.
Seek support: Cobble together a support group with friends, family or even a fitness class buddy. Hanging out with people who are adopting healthier habits is great motivation. It can also make healthy living a lot of fun.