The Anti-Aging Diet

Can what you eat help you age gracefully?

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

It seems we're all trying to find the "magic bullet" that delays the natural aging process. Put an antiaging label on most any product, and it flies off the shelves.

Yet if you're trying to look your best without going under the knife, a secret ingredient might be right under your nose. Some experts say one answer to aging gracefully can be found in the grocery store -- in fruits, vegetables, green tea, and a host of other healthful foods that are rich in antioxidants and other potentially age-deterring compounds.

What Is Aging?

Of course, the signs of aging include not only wrinkles, but also memory loss, decreased brain function, and an increasing risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. Healthy aging is also defined as living a longer, healthier life. And many studies have documented the link between a healthy diet and prevention of age-related or chronic diseases.

Adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity, adequate rest, avoiding tobacco, and a diet full of healthy foods and beverages can be the best defense against aging.

"Dietary choices are critical to delay the onset of aging and age-related diseases, and the sooner you start, the greater the benefit," says Susan Moores, RD, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.

Antioxidants and Inflammation

Some foods and beverages contain powerful substances called phytonutrients that some believe are capable of unlocking the key to longevity. Phytonutrients, which are members of the antioxidant family, gobble up "free radicals" -- oxygen molecules that play a role in the onset of illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer's disease.

As we age, we become more susceptible to the long-term effects of oxidative stress (a condition where the body basically has too many free radicals) and inflammation on the cellular level. The theory is that antioxidants and other age-defying compounds help cells ward off damage from free radicals and minimize the impact of aging.

Beyond antioxidants, some other compounds in foods can affect aging. They can be classified according to their impact on inflammation at the cellular level, experts say.

"All foods fit into three categories: pro-inflammatory, neutral, or anti-inflammatory," says dermatologist and best-selling author, Nicholas Perricone, MD.

Perricone says you can help to slow aging at the cellular level by choosing foods that are anti-inflammatory and rich in antioxidants.

"Age-related changes may be reversed by consuming foods and beverages that are rich in a variety of compounds, including antioxidants, and are anti-inflammatory, such as cold-water fish and richly colored fruits and vegetables," he says.

On the other hand, foods classified as pro-inflammatory can accelerate aging, Perricone says.

If "we eat large amounts of saturated or trans fatty acids, sugars, and starches, insulin levels surge and trigger an anti-inflammatory response and accelerate the aging process," says Perricone.

While the benefits to eating healthy are many, Perricone notes that diet is certainly not the only factor that affects the aging process.

"Stress, hormones, ultraviolet light, and a weakened immune system also contribute to aging," he says.

Still, making smart lifestyle choices are within your control, and are among the best things you can do to help prevent disease and retard aging.

Food for Healthy Aging

For maximum benefits, experts say, you should load up on a variety of healthy foods.

"We know about antioxidants and anti-inflammatory activities of foods, but we suspect there could be so much more going on beyond attacking free radicals that promote health and ward off disease," says Moores.

Moores suggests adding these foods and beverages into your eating plan for good health and to reduce the signs of aging:

  • Fish. Follow the guidelines of the American Heart Association and eat twice weekly, especially the fatty kind that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This is a powerful anti-inflammatory food that offers a multitude of health benefits.
  • Fruits and vegetables are powerhouses of antioxidants. Aim for a variety of colorful produce. Enjoy at least 5 servings per day for the maximum benefits.
  • Whole grains provide soluble fiber to help lower blood cholesterol levels, and also have phytonutrient content equal to any fruit or vegetable. Strive for at least 3 daily servings.
  • Legumes are unsung heroes, packed with nutrients similar to fruits and vegetables and with very few calories. Add them to your diet 3 to 4 times a week.
  • Yogurt has all the benefits of dairy foods, plus probiotics that help add healthy bacteria to the intestines. Moores recommends eating a yogurt with active cultures as one of your 3 dairy servings each day.
  • Nuts are a great source of B vitamins that are good for your heart and your brain. The healthy fats in nuts benefit the elastin and collagen in skin, helping to maintaining skin's structure and keep it resilient. Small portions are advised, as nuts are high in calories.
  • Water is essential for hydration of the skin, muscles, circulation, and all organs in the body. Enjoy 3-4 glasses of pure water in addition to other liquids and watery foods.