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By Peter Jaret
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
You already know that eating the right foods helps keep you healthy. Here’s more good news: A healthy diet can also make you look and feel young. It may even slow the aging process.
Eating foods such as fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts, and whole grains protects against many chronic conditions that could limit your life, including diabetes and heart disease. These foods help keep your blood vessels in top shape. That’s important for your heart — and for every organ of your body. Certain foods can protect vision and hearing. Eating healthy foods may even help preserve memory and protect against Alzheimer’s.
“Even your skin will stay younger looking if you eat right,” says Allison T. Pontius, MD, an expert in anti-aging and regenerative medicine at Williams’ Center of Excellence in Latham, N.Y.
Help Yourself to These Age-Defying Foods
Colorful fruits and vegetables. The antioxidants in colorful vegetables and fruits, such as leafy greens, deep red tomatoes, blueberries, and carrots, help stop unstable molecules from damaging healthy cells. You cannot feel it when some cells are damaged or dying, but you can see it in the signs of aging, such as wrinkles. So at each meal, fill about half your plate with fruits and vegetables. Your goal is five to nine servings a day.
- Three particular antioxidants — vitamin C, zinc, and beta-carotene — help protect your vision from macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in adults 65 and older. If you already have macular degeneration, eating foods with these nutrients may slow its progress. Dark green leafy vegetables — spinach, kale, collard, and mustard greens — help the most. But you also help your eyes when you eat bright-colored produce, including corn, peppers, oranges, and cantaloupe.
- A powerful antioxidant in grapes and red wine, called resveratrol, helps reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, and premature aging.
- Antioxidants like vitamin C can even keep your skin younger-looking. A 2010 study showed that eating lots of yellow and green vegetables was linked to fewer wrinkles.
Whole grains. Eating whole grains rich in fiber — oats, quinoa, barley, wheat, and brown rice — lowers your chance of developing type 2 diabetes. A healthy diet that contains whole grains also keeps blood vessels in peak condition. Your goal is three servings of whole grains a day.
Fish. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil offer many anti-aging benefits. They protect your heart, reduce your risk of stroke, and may even lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Help yourself to two servings a week of fatty fish such as salmon, lake trout, or tuna. If you typically get tuna from a can, choose albacore packed in water for the most omega-3s. If you don’t eat fish, ask your doctor if you should take fish oil supplements.
Dairy. The calcium and fortified vitamin D in dairy foods are crucial to strong bones. They help prevent osteoporosis and keep you active into your golden years. Include 3 cups of low-fat milk, yogurt, or other dairy products a day to ensure strong bones for life. By choosing low-fat instead of regular dairy, you’ll help keep your cholesterol levels in check, making you less likely to get heart disease.
Nuts. The fatty acids in nuts are among the healthiest you can find. If you avoid nuts because you think they’re high in fat, think again. In fact, one study showed that snacking on nuts reduced the risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol by about 20%. You only need to eat 1/4 of an ounce a day to get the benefits — that’s about 4 almonds.
Beans and lentils. These foods give you loads of plant-based protein, so they’re an age-protecting alternative to red meat with saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease and diabetes. Beans and lentils are inexpensive and easy to add to soups, casseroles, and side dishes.
Aging Foods to Avoid
For the best anti-aging diet, it’s important to limit foods that can harm your body. It’s easy if you follow these three guidelines.
- Go easy on high-fat meat, high-fat dairy, and bakery treats. The saturated fat found in these foods can clog your arteries, which can lead to heart problems.
- Limit sugar as much as possible. Eating too much sugar can send your blood sugar levels on a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. Over time, excess calories may make you insulin resistant, which can lead to type 2 diabetes. Diabetes damages your blood vessels and often leads to heart disease. “The less sugar you eat, the healthier you’ll be,” Pontius says.
- Spare the salt. Eating too much salt, a form of sodium, can raise your blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure can damage many parts of your body, including your kidneys, your eyes, and your brain. Limit sodium to 2,400 milligrams — about 1 teaspoon of table salt — throughout your entire day. If you have high blood pressure, your doctor may suggest you eat even less, about 1,500 mg a day. Check labels for the sodium content in canned, frozen, and boxed foods. Packaged foods typically pack in a lot of salt — you may be eating more than you realize.
Give Your Body the Fuel It Needs
Can you get the benefits of nutrients through supplements, instead of thinking so much about what you eat? Not really, says dietitian Manuel Villacorta, author of Eating Free.
You need calories from food to have the energy to do everything you want to do. For steady energy, Villacorta suggests you eat three modest-sized meals a day, and keep healthy snacks handy for between meals. Drink plenty of water. Becoming dehydrated can rob you of energy and cause your skin to dry out.
Also, research shows that nutrients in whole foods interact in complex ways to protect your body. Isolating a single nutrient in a supplement rarely offers the exact same benefit.
“It’s smarter — and easier — to plan your diet around foods, not nutrients,” Villacorta says. “What you eat makes a huge difference in how you age and how you feel.”