Good news for fruit and veggie lovers! Healthy eating habits may defy aging by maintaining the health and youth of cells. Scientists note that the best indicator of biological aging is cellular aging (examining cellular DNA) versus measuring age in years. Telomeres are the ends of chromosomes that indicate how old a cell is. These structures are made up of DNA strands and proteins. When cells divide, telomeres shorten and eventually die (1). The shortening of telomeres is a natural process, though collective cellular damage can speed up the process and result in the premature death of cells. Cancer and other chronic illnesses have been linked with damaged cells and shorter telomere length. There are several environmental factors that can be modified to reduce cellular damage including diet, UV ray exposure, alcohol consumption, and stress. Excessive stress speeds up cellular aging, whereas regular exercise keeps cells younger (2).A group of scientists at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor, led by assistant professor of nutritional sciences, Cindy Leung, found an association between eating a healthful diet and the length of telomeres. The research was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.In that study, the diets of nearly 5,000 adult men and women aged 20-65 were evaluated. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey was utilized as well. The team evaluated the subjects’ adherence to the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) in addition to scores on the Healthy Eating Index and Alternative Healthy Eating Index. The USDA worked with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston on the last two diets (2).According to Leung, "All four diets emphasize eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based protein and limiting consumption of sugar, sodium, and red and processed meat."The study found a significant link between longer telomere length and strict adherence to any of the eating patterns. Leung explains, "[T]he findings suggest that following these [four dietary] guidelines is associated with longer telomere length and reduces the risk of major chronic disease," adding, "We were surprised that the findings were consistent regardless of the diet quality index we used" (2).The study’s co-author, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco Elissa Epel suggests that this is because all of the healthful diet patterns are high in antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory diets. The foods included provide a favorable biochemical environment to telomeres.In men, the same associations were observed, but were not deemed statistically significant. The scientists believe that there have been previous sex differences in studies evaluating diet and telomere length. The researchers note that men tend to have lower diet quality scores compared to women. Intake of sugary beverages and processed meats also tend to be higher in men, which are both associated with shorter telomeres. "It's possible that not all foods affect telomere length equally and you need higher amounts of protective foods in order to negate the harmful effects of others. However, more research is needed to explore this further," concludes Leung (3).Leung believes that a healthful diet may aid in keeping cells healthy and avoiding some chronic illnesses. The focus should be on improving overall diet quality versus emphasis of singular foods or nutrients (2).While research is ongoing on diet and telomere length, including nutrient-dense foods with high antioxidant value certainly can’t hurt. These include berries, melon, cherries, citrus fruit, green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. In addition, plant-based protein sources like beans, lentils, soy, nuts, and seeds should also be emphasized. Animal foods high in saturated fat and processed foods such as sugar should be limited when possible. Whole grains such as steel cut oats, quinoa, farro, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta should also be encouraged.By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LDReferences:
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.