Feeling and looking young is more within your control than you think. Much of what we’ve assumed are the inevitable consequences of aging — wrinkles, memory loss, an escalating risk for heart disease, osteoporosis and cancer — results more from the lifestyle choices we make than from the natural aging process. And our dietary choices are just as important as using sunscreen, getting exercise and other preventive tactics. Here, your anti-aging nutritional arsenal, in a nutshell.
Below, a simple eating plan to stay young:
Limit fat and sugar.
Focus on minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nonfat milk and lean meat, especially fish.
Take a moderate-dose multiple vitamin-and-mineral supplement.
Take extra antioxidants, such as 100 IU of vitamin E and up to 1,000 mg of vitamin C.
Increase certain vitamins as you age
As we age, our bodies’ process nutrients less efficiently, resulting in the need for us to increase our nutrient intake. For example, Vitamin D is a nutrient essential to the prevention of osteoporosis. Our bodies manufacture vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight, but by our 70s our bodies produce only 40 percent of what they produced in third grade. An adequate dosage of vitamin D for people in their 20s is 200 IU; for people who are older, 400 IU to 600 IU is needed to do the same amount of work. It’s impossible to say at exactly which age you should be getting this much, but because aging is a continuum, you should gradually increase your intake so that by age 60 or so you are up to around 600 IU.
The need for B vitamins increases with age as well. Three B vitamins — folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 — are essential for keeping levels of a compound called homocysteine low in the blood; if allowed to rise, homocysteine contributes to heart-disease risk and possibly memory loss, according to a study in a 1998 European Journal of Pediatrics. As you age, increase your B6 dose from 2 mg to 5 mg; increase B12 over time from 2 mcg to 10 mcg. Women should take 400 mcg of folic acid daily; pregnant women should take 800 mcg daily (to help prevent neural-tube defects in the fetus).
Women, in particular, should be aware that their calcium intake should increase as they age to prevent osteoporosis: According to the National Institutes of Health, during the middle years, 1,000 mg each day is adequate; 1,200 mg after menopause if you’re on hormone replacement therapy; 1,500 mg if you are not on HRT. (During adolescence, girls should take 1,200 mg to 1,300 mg.)
Consume “anti-aging” produce
People who consume diets loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables have lower disease rates, more energy and less risk for weight gain (which can lead to health problems) than those who skip these foods, according to numerous studies published over the years. What’s the magic ingredient in fresh produce? There are several:
With the exception of avocados, olives and coconuts, fresh fruits and vegetables have no fat, cholesterol or sodium.
They are also fiber-rich: Eight servings of fruits and vegetables daily supplies approximately 27 grams of fiber, well within the daily target goal of 25 grams to 35 grams. Fiber-rich foods lower a person’s risk for developing age-related diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hypertension. Fiber-rich foods also are low in calories, yet satiating, so they help fill you up without filling you out.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are nutrient-packed, providing ample amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin C, beta carotene and folic acid, and they are low in calories (a heaping bowlful of greens supplies only 30 calories!).
The National Cancer Institute recommends a minimum of five fruit-and-vegetable servings a day, but research shows that the more servings, the greater the health benefits. Therefore, to fend off the hands of time, you should try to consume at least eight servings of fruits and vegetables each day (two at every meal and two as snacks).
Load up on age-defying antioxidants
Fruits and vegetables also are gold mines of longevity-enhancing compounds called antioxidants; these include vitamins C and E and beta carotene. Antioxidants combat free radicals, oxygen fragments that attack and damage cell membranes, life-sustaining proteins and even our cells’ genetic code, and in so doing bring about aging and disease.
Diets rich in antioxidants prevent disease and premature aging. Antioxidants also stimulate the immune system and protect the nervous system and brain from the oxidative damage associated with age-related memory loss. A 1993 Harvard School of Public Health study found that adults who supplemented daily with at least 100 IU of vitamin E for at least two years had up to a 40 percent reduction in heart-disease risk.
Men, in particular, can benefit from the immune-enhancing effects of antioxidants: A study published in this month’s Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that men who consumed vitamins C and E had lower amounts of certain particles (androgens, for example) associated with the development of prostate cancer. The recommended daily value (RDA) for vitamin C is 60 mg, but up to 1000 mg can be taken safely.
Practice portion control and make every bite count
Cut back on unnecessary calories, and you stack the deck in favor of living longer. Studies of small mammals have shown that in every case these animals have increased their lifespan from two- to four-fold by cutting back on food intake. Such animals have lower rates of all age-related diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, memory loss and dwindling immunity.
Don’t confuse reducing calories with malnutrition, however. Lower your intake of foods containing fat and sugar but continue to eat foods chockful of nutrients including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nonfat milk products.
Get your fat from fish
Last but not least, get your fat from fish, not from red meats. The fats in fish, called omega-3 fatty acids, lower heart-disease risk, stimulate the immune system and might even reduce the incidence of depression. In a study published in this month’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from the University of Barcelona found that “fish-lovers” have a significantly reduced rate of colorectal, esophageal, stomach and pancreatic cancers. Even small amounts of fish were found to lower risk for cancers of the digestive tract. The researchers speculate that the fatty acids found in fish may help inhibit the growth of cancer cells.