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The Fiftysomething Diet: Your Body After a Food Splurge

The inside scoop on what those unhealthy binges are doing to you

By Maureen Callahan

Bite-sized chocolates. A big old buttered popcorn at the movies. A fast-food combo meal. Have you ever wondered about the toll these sugary-fatty junk food binges take on your health?

Researchers pinpoint damage to four key areas that are not feelin’ the love post food splurge. And P.S.: it’s not much different at twentysomething than at fiftysomething.

Your Teeth

Sugary treats. Refined carbs. All that simple sugar crowding into the mouth at once causes a drop in pH level. Teeth become awash in an acidic environment that wears at enamel; sugar combines with bacteria in the mouth to promote tooth decay.

In a younger adult, good saliva production helps buffer some of that assault. By 50 and beyond, it’s more troublesome for a couple reasons. The enamel barrier on teeth is thinner, worn down from a lifetime of grinding teeth and exposure to acid. That acid comes not just from sugars but from things like lemon juice and vinegar.

Secondly, medications many fiftysomethings take can diminish saliva reserves, says Dr. Judith Jones, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association and a professor in the school of dentistry at Boston University.

Better splurge strategy: Frequency matters more than amount when it comes to damaging teeth. “Limit the number of exposures every day to sugar and refined carbs,” says Jones. “A few pieces of chocolate or one little splurge is better than repeated sugar insults over the course of the day.”

Your Gut

The trillions of bacteria that reside in the digestive tract are an opportunist bunch. They’ll eat whatever you feed them, even if it’s junk. Trouble is, their diversity goes down and the number of “good” bacterial strains — the ones that do everything from strengthen immune function to help you lose weight — diminish.

Gut bacteria prefer foods that are high in fiber and plant-based,” says Gail Cresci, a researcher in the gastroenterology and hepatology department at Cleveland Clinic. “If you don’t feed them that, they still survive, but they shift.”

They morph and change into bacteria that can produce substances that damage the body, she said. In her research, Cresci has found that “alcohol alters the gut microbiome right away,” but no one has looked at what a single junk food binge might do. However, a couple of days of eating poorly can dramatically lower bacterial diversity whether you’re 20 or 50.

Also harmful to that diversity: stress, exposure to antibiotics and medications like ones that treat acid reflux. That’s a list that probably puts fiftysomethings at more of a disadvantage since they have a longer lifetime exposure.

Better splurge strategy: No splurging is the best strategy, says Cresci. But for those who fall off the healthy eating wagon on occasion, “reboot your system. Get yourself back to quality choices as soon as possible,” she says. Also helpful, she says, are fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi and kombucha.

Your Liver

It’s scary, but kids (maybe even your grandkids) who guzzle huge amounts of sugary drinks are turning up in doctors’ offices with a liver disease called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a growing problem linked to obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.

“The liver will take the excess sugar and turn it into fat,” explains Dr. Brent Tetri, director of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, who is studying the link between a fast food diet and NASH in a mouse model. “And all that fat damages the liver.”

Fatty, sugary fast food meals are not a great splurge, either. Swedish researchers feeding twentysomethings two fast-food meals a day for four weeks find that’s enough to spike levels of a liver enzyme called alanine aminotransferase or ALT, an indication of damage to the liver.

If you watched the 2004 movie Super Size Me, where 32-year-old Morgan Spurlock jacked up his weight and liver enzymes with a month of eating three fast food meals a day, this is not news.


What is news: Most Americans aren't paying any attention to the damage diet can do to the liver. It doesn’t help that NASH develops silently until the very end when damage leads to cirrhosis or liver cancer. So what are the repercussions to overindulging for an older, say fiftysomething, liver?

“We don’t have data to say that it’s any worse or any better at different ages,” says Tetri. It’s just bad, period.

Better splurge strategy: “The reality is most people can eat these foods once in a while, but it’s not something you should be doing every day,” says Tetri. He encourages fiftysomethings to become more aware of how much fat and sugar are in foods they eat. That’s the first step to not overdoing it.

Your Heart

Feed anyone white flour, added sugars and processed food and you can expect an immediate spike in blood sugar and a spike in blood triglycerides, says Dr. James H. O'Keefe, Jr., a cardiologist with St. Luke’s Health System and a professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Medicine.

Yes, there may be less of a spike for someone young, thin and physically active. But make no mistake, the damage is happening. And it’s cumulative.

O’Keefe pinpoints “junky carbohydrates” that are full of added sugars as the biggest dietary devil. “They’re rusting you from the inside out,” he says, “and there is no holding it back.”

Or think of it this way: “If you flood the body’s engine with too much food, what’s coming out of the exhaust pipe is toxic free radicals,” O’Keefe says. These chemicals trigger inflammation in the body damaging the heart, accelerating aging and promoting cancer.

The solution is simple: Eat whole foods that let you avoid big spikes in blood sugar and blood fats. Fish. Peanuts. Carrots. “Our body is designed to run smoothly on whole natural foods. It takes a long time to eat them. A long time to digest them. They’re absorbed slowly. The energy trickles into the engine and circulates gradually,” O'Keefe says.

Better splurge strategy: O’Keefe doesn’t like the concept of splurging or “cheat” days. Stuffing in junk food is not healthy he says. “It messes up hormones. They get way out of whack and you’re hungry all the time,” notes O'Keefe.

It’s a vicious downward spiral, and once you start it’s hard to go back to eating healthfully. Instead, snack on berries (“nature’s candy”), nuts and the occasional small square or two of 70 percent cocoa content dark chocolate.


Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the diet book review series. She is a two-time James Beard Award winner. Read More
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