Is Food Aging Us?

Image: Kelsey Vere

We have all heard the saying “you are what you eat”.  Is this true, however?  The answer is yes.  The relationship between nutrition and its effects on the human body has been a part of scientific research for a long time.  What does it do to us on the inside?  How does it affect our skin health? In simple terms, nutrition levels and eating habits can repair your damaged skin or cause skin damage. Before you look at Botox to erase those fine wrinkles, take a closer look at what you are consuming instead.

Causes of Aging

One of the biggest contributors to the aging process is a lack of water.  Our bodies need hydration and, as we get older, water becomes even more important. As people age, their metabolism slows down, and their ability to absorb and utilize nutrients lessons.  They tend to become less active and lose muscle mass.  This is one of the main reasons for the gradual loss of water in our bodies.  Our cells hold about 60% to 70% of our total body water levels.  As muscle mass made up of these cells declines, so does our body’s water level.  Studies show that drinking more than 2 L of water per day will significantly affect your skin’s physiology in addition to promoting deep hydration of the skin.  Hydrated skin equals the appearance of fewer fine lines.

The second culprit is vitamin deficiency.  Since vitamins are absorbed in our bodies from the food we eat, a diet that does not include vitamin-rich foods is evident on your skin.  Lack of vitamins can even lead to severe skin disorders (for example, lack of vitamin C causes the symptoms of scurvy).  Another culprit in the aging process is protein. Protein plays an important role in the construction and repair of our body’s tissue cells, and only when we eat an adequate amount can we maintain normal tissue renewal. 

An imbalanced or incomplete diet can also lead to aging.  Researchers have studied regions with high concentrations of individuals over 100 years old (dubbed “Blue Zones”) who did not have health problems like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.  Although they did not have the appearance of a twenty-something-year-old, their bodies’ condition was far better than their age would indicate.  The common denominator: their food philosophy and consumption levels.  Most areas focused on a high-level plant-based meal.  They ate whole, unprocessed foods high in calcium and fiber and low in fats or sugars.  They drank plenty of water and wine or coffee in moderation.  Finally, they avoided overeating.  Research has proven that our metabolism can slow down as early as 40 years old.   That simply means we cannot burn off what we eat as quickly as we used to.

Saturated high-fats will slowly kill you.  Eating saturated fats can aggravate psoriasis amongst several other chronic health issues.  If these “bad” fats are overconsumed and lead to obesity, the changes in the body’s hormones will result in many other skin problems or stretch marks on the body.  Essential fatty acids like omega-3s, however, are building blocks of healthy cell membranes.  They help produce the skin’s natural oil barrier (a key component in keeping the skin hydrated, plumper, and younger-looking). 

Finally, studies have shown that sugar and some types of food processing (such as grilling, frying, and even microwaving) are closely associated with skin aging.  This diet leads to the accumulation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs).  These AGEs are harmful compounds formed when fat and sugar combine in the bloodstream.  Production of these AGEs in skin cells promotes loss of elasticity in the skin.

Foods That Will Make You Age Faster

Eating too much sugar or processed carbohydrates like pasta or bread can damage your skin’s collagen, your body’s wrinkle-fighting superstar.  (Interestingly enough, collagen is in most over-the-counter beauty products). Food high in AGEs will also play havoc with your body.  Aside from fried food or highly processed food, you should also watch your consumption of red meat, certain cheeses, fried eggs, butter, margarine, and mayonnaise.  Saturated trans fats (such as hydrogenated oils and vegetable shortening) reduce protein synthesis and should be on the “no” list as well.  These bad fats also delay the healing properties of your skin. Also on the list is alcohol, especially cocktails high in sugars.  Also avoid energy drinks and packaged or processed meats (hot dogs, pepperoni, bacon).  In reality, any processed foods are usually full of chemicals and ingredients bad for you.  Read the label.  It may stop you from buying that product after all.

Image: Vidmir Raic

What Does Science Say?

Scientists are continuously studying the human body and how it works.  The aging of our bodies is not exempt from these studies.  Researchers at the Pohang University of Science and Technology in Korea believe that sensory neurons in our bodies control the rate at which one will age.  These neurons activate by an anti-aging protein called FOXO.  You can achieve FOXO activation through caloric restriction, intermittent fasting, by consuming certain dietary components such as green tea, onions, and apples or nutrient-rich foods such as salmon and kale.

A ground-breaking clinical trial found that we can reduce our biological age by more than three years in only eight weeks with a diet and lifestyle change*. This trial studied 43 healthy adult males aged 50 to 72.  The 8-week program directed their diet, sleep, exercise, and relaxation.  The scientists then evaluated their DNA methylation patterns. (DNA methylation is a means used to study and track biological aging.  It refers to the damage and loss of function to our cells, tissues, and organs. This damage is what causes aging and possible diseases of aging).  They discovered that by eating certain foods that included specific nutrients and food compounds known to alter DNA methylation, they were able to impact the outcome of the test subjects.  In other words, they aged slower.

Fifteen Foods You Should Eat

Each person will react differently to the food they eat in many different ways.  It is not only important to monitor what you eat, but also how much of it.  As we age, our caloric requirements decline.  Overeating may stress your body and lead to health issues and the skin’s decline.  Many years of research demonstrate clearly that the quality of one’s diet has a huge effect on our bodies, both mentally and physically.

Foods that support good skin health (and overall well-being) include:

Watercress:  Watercress is high in calcium, potassium, manganese, phosphorus, vitamins A, C, K, B-1, and B-2.  It acts as an internal skin antiseptic and increases the circulation and delivery of minerals throughout the body.  This results in enhanced oxygenation of the skin.  Add it to a salad or smoothie.

Red Bell Peppers: Loaded with antioxidants and vitamin C, these bright vegetables contain powerful antioxidants called carotenoids (plant pigments responsible for the bright red, yellow, and orange colors you see in many fruits and vegetables) with a variety of anti-inflammatory properties.  They may help protect your skin from pollution, sun damage, or environmental toxins.  Use bell peppers in a salad, stir-fry, or raw as a vessel for your favorite dip.

Papaya: – Papaya is in season during the early summer and fall, so make sure to add it to your grocery list.  Full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that help improve skin elasticity (Vitamins A, B, C, K, and E, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus), papaya also contains an enzyme called papain. This enzyme provides additional anti-aging benefits by working as one of nature’s best anti-inflammatory agents (papain is found in many exfoliating products).  Use this fresh fruit in a papaya and shrimp salad recipe.

Blueberries: – Rich in vitamins A and C, as well as an age-defying antioxidant called anthocyanin (this is what gives blueberries their deep blue color), these little balls of goodness moderate the inflammatory response and prevent collagen loss.  Use them in smoothies, pancakes (instead of chocolate chips), or eat just on their own.

Image: Melk Hagelslag

Broccoli: Broccoli is high in vitamins C and K, a variety of antioxidants, fiber, folate, lutein, and calcium.  The vitamin C found in broccoli aids in the production of collagen (the main protein that gives the skin its strength and elasticity).  Broccoli is in season between September and November, but you can usually be found throughout the year.  Eat it raw with your favorite dip or steam it as an excellent side to your meat dish. 

Spinach:  Spinach is packed with antioxidants and a multitude of vitamins including A, C, E, and K.  Spinach is also high in magnesium and a natural, plant-based heme iron, lutein.  Spinach enhances collagen and reduces inflammation in cells and is sold in markets year-round.  Use it to make Greek spanakopita.

Almonds:  Almonds with the skin (the skin has most of the antioxidants) are high in vitamin E (helps repair skin tissue and retain moisture).  Eating almonds will strengthen the skin cell membranes and give your skin a beautiful glow by preserving its natural oil barrier.  As they are high in natural fats, you should not eat more than 23 almonds per day.  Almonds are great for snacking or adding to a salad or rice dish.

Image: Steve Buissinne

Avocado: Avocados are high in inflammation-fighting fatty acids that promote smooth, supple skin. They also contain a high content of vitamin A and various other essential nutrients, including vitamins C, E, K, B, and potassium. (The high content of vitamin A in avocados can help us shed dead skin cells.) Use them in a salad, sandwich, or in dip

Sweet Potatoes:  These orange potatoes contain an antioxidant called beta-carotene that converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A helps to restore skin elasticity and promote skin cell turnover, which will ultimately lead to soft, youthful-looking skin. This delicious root vegetable is also a great source of vitamins C and E, which both have skin-health benefits.  Use them in soups or just roasted. 

Pomegranate: For centuries, pomegranates have been used as a medicinal fruit.  Pomegranates are high in vitamin C in addition to many other beneficial antioxidants, including a compound called punicalagin that helps preserve the collagen in our skin.  They can also help protect our body from free radical damage and reduce levels of inflammation in our system.  Use them in salads or eat them as a snack.

Romaine Lettuce: Like watercress, this leafy green is high in vitamins A and C, both of which have skin health benefits. Use it in a classic Caesar salad or on a sandwich. 

Tomatoes: Tomatoes are one of the few foods that contain a nutrient called lycopene.  This nutrient is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect cells from damage.  In addition to this, they are rich sources of folate, vitamins C and K, and potassium.  In season from May to October, they are great in salads, sandwiches, or sauces.

Image: Shutterbug75

Salmon:  Salmon is a fish high in omega-3 fats and is a good source of protein that helps prevent muscle loss. High in astaxanthin, it helps maintain skin elasticity, reduces the signs of aging, and protects against UV damage. Salmon is considered a superfood and is easy to prepare and delicious to eat.

Lentils and Beans: Lentils and beans are both excellent sources of protein, fiber, and nutrients.  Aside from skin health, they can help lower cholesterol and protect against diabetes and colon cancer.  The potassium found in lentils and beans can also counter the effects of your salt intake.  Available in various types such as black beans, split peas, lima beans, and chickpeas, you can try a different one each week.  Use them in salads and soups.

Whole Grains: Whole grains such as oatmeal, brown rice, and quinoa help regulate inflammation.  They also contain B vitamins that are important for skin health.  Use various dishes from desserts to sides.

The Final Word

We all enjoy eating foods that we know are just plain bad for us (hello, bacon pizza!).  The key to keeping your skin and body healthy is to moderate the quantity consumed.  Life is not life without eating.  Not only do we need it to survive, but we also use it as a social tool.  What is a birthday without cake? Life is also about balance. Work and fun. Exercise and relaxation.  Where food is concerned, the scale should tip towards the healthy side.  The balance will come in the occasional treats you allow yourself.

*Conducted by the Helfgott Research Institute with laboratory assistance from Yale University Center for Genome Analysis

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