Ageing is a natural part of life: it means that we’ve gained experiences, memories and wisdom. (And let's face it, it’s better than the alternative.) While we can’t go back in time and we can’t stop the process of ageing—nor should we want to!—there are things we can do to delay the process of ageing, which can affect not only how we look, but also negatively impact our health and cognitive function.
Factors like diet and lifestyle have a significant effect on how we age, and believe it or not, we have some control in this department.
WHY WE AGE
So what is ageing?
As we get older, processes that used to work rather quickly—like cell turn over and collagen production—begin to slow down. On the other hand, cellular damage, cellular waste and errors in the reparation of cells start to increase. It’s these processes that lead to the visible symptoms of ageing we’re familiar with: fatigue, wrinkles, inflammation and chronic illness.
As it turns out, nutrition and lifestyle play a big role in how quickly the ageing process happens. (1) This is largely related to the role of free radicals and oxidative stress.
OXIDATIVE STRESS + FREE RADICALS
Free radicals are unstable atoms, as they lack the electrons needed to make a full outer shell. The result is that they react quickly with other substances, and can create damage to cells, accelerating degenerative processes. (2) When these oxygen-containing molecules continuously break down into free-radicals, this is when oxidative stress occurs.
As we age, we accumulate more free radicals, and more oxidative stress, which in turn leads to accelerated ageing. (3) Free radical damage has also been linked to increased risk of chronic disease, like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases.
Smoking, too much sun exposure, pollution, stress and a poor diet are all factors that contribute to oxidative stress. (And thankfully, for the most part, these are all things we have control over.)
AGES: ADVANCED GLYCATION END PRODUCTS
Another contributor to ageing is the production of AGEs: advanced glycation endproducts. Aptly named, AGEs are harmful compounds in the body that have been shown to physically age us and are associated with the majority of chronic diseases, including arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, dementia--to name a few. (4,5)
That’s because AGEs actually contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress. (6) Higher levels of AGEs in the body are also associated with an increase in insulin resistance, which when left unchecked can lead to weight gain, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. (7)
The biggest culprit of AGEs in our diet is heavily processed and overly refined foods. (8) AGEs can form when refined carbohydrates integrate with proteins, or with the use of high heat cooking methods—making foods like pizza and burgers top sources of AGEs. (9)
FOODS THAT ACCELERATE AGING
It’s probably no surprise then, but processed and fried foods—like french fries and doughnuts—contribute to the ageing process and cause inflammation in the body.
Here are some of the biggest food offenders:
Foods high in sugar have been shown to accelerate ageing. Whether that’s a piece of cake, or even just plain white bread, sugary foods—and foods that break down into sugar through the process of digestion—are directly linked to ageing. (10) Fructose, in particular, found in sodas and processed foods, is linked to inflammatory-related diseases, like diabetes and fatty liver disease. (11) Oh, and fructose also breaks down collagen which is key to the health of our skin, therefore, making us look older. (12)
Hopefully, by now you’ve long abandoned hydrogenated vegetable oils (like margarine and soybean oils) in place of healthier fats, but if not, here’s your call to action to do so. Cheap, oxidized vegetable oils can lead to increased inflammation. This is in part due to their high omega-6 content. (13) Products like margarine also contain trans fats (often seen labelled as partially hydrogenated) which have been shown to increase inflammation and the risk of disease. (14)
You can see it on your face the next day after a night of one too many glasses of wine: alcohol leaves your body looking and feeling dehydrated and depletes it of vitamin A, a nutrient required for cell growth, collagen production and skin elasticity. (15)
FOODS THAT FIGHT PREMATURE AGING
While limiting the foods listed above is a crucial step, these foods below can help to protect your body from premature aging and free radical damage.
One of the best ways to diminish the effects of oxidative stress and free radical damage is by consuming antioxidants. Think of them as the lion tamers of free radicals: chemically they work by donating a spare electron to free radicals, to neutralize their activity, without becoming reactive themselves.
Perfect! So time to go stock up on some antioxidant supplements, right? Not so fast. Research shows that the best way to consume antioxidants is through your diet. (16) Supplementation can do more harm than good, as it’s very possible to have too much of a good thing.
Most fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants in the form of flavonoids, catechins and polyphenols, and they are often what gives produce its vibrant colouring. Blueberries, for example, are a great source of anthocyanins, the antioxidant responsible for its deep blue colour. While tomatoes get their colouring from their lycopene content.
How To Get It:
Opt for foods rich in antioxidants, like berries, leafy greens, dark chocolate and green tea. (17) Anti-inflammatory spices, like turmeric, are also powerful sources of antioxidants especially when it comes to looking after your joints. (18) As is extra virgin olive oil. (19)
By eating a varied, colourful diet—think kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, red cabbage,avocadoes—you can ensure that you’re eating a wide variety of antioxidant-rich foods.
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
Another nutrient that offers powerful anti-ageing health benefits is omega-3s. Omega-3 consumption has been shown to decrease inflammation, reduce insulin resistance and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. (20) If that weren’t enough, omega-3s can also ward off age-related cognitive decline, boost memory and reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. (21, 22)
How To Get It:
While certain plant foods, like walnuts, hemp seeds and chia seeds, do contain omega-3s in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), these sources aren’t as bioavailable to the human body, with a conversion rate to EPA of only 5% and DHA less than 1%. (23)
So while these foods are definitely great for overall health, when it comes to omega-3s it’s important to look for DHA—which is required for cognitive function—and EPA—which can reduce inflammation—sources of omega-3s. (24, 25)
These include cold-water fatty fish, like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines. If fish isn’t your thing, supplementing with high-quality omega-3 fish oil can also be an effective route to go!
Since the production of collagen starts to slow down as we age, it’s essential to make sure we’re consuming enough and doing what we can to support natural collagen production. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body, making up to ⅓ of the protein--and it makes up skin, bones, tendons and muscles.
Collagen supplementation has been shown to increase skin elasticity, reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis and help reduce overall joint pain. (26, 27)
How To Get It
Food sources of collagen include bone broth, chicken skin, beef and fish, and are definitely foods that should be included regularly into our diets. However, most studies have found the best results come with collagen supplementation, in the form of collagen peptides. The great thing about collagen peptides is they can be easily added to smoothies, oats and protein balls, without adding any strange flavours or odours. Opt for grass-fed beef collagen or wild-caught marine-based collagen for the best benefits.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of this, don’t sweat it! Incorporating these foods can be as simple as having a smoothie in the morning made with spinach, berries, cacao powder and collagen. Or a baked lemon-salmon dinner with a side of cooked broccoli. Superfoods like turmeric are also easy to throw into soups, chia pudding, smoothies, yoghurt and curries.
As always, be sure to make changes that you actually enjoy, so you’ll be encouraged to stick with them. And don’t forget, living a healthy life doesn’t mean you have to give up your favourite foods (pizza, I’m looking at you). It just gives you the tools to make more educated decisions, so you can decide when to incorporate these less-than-healthy foods, for a well-balanced and enjoyable life!