How to Age Well (Part One – Eat)

By Tara Parker-Pope @nytimeswell

Getting older is inevitable (and certainly better than the alternative). While you can’t control your age, you can slow the decline of aging with smart choices along the way. From the foods you eat and how you exercise to your friendships and retirement goals — it all has an effect on how fast or slow your body ages. Keep reading for simple ways to keep your body tuned up and your mind tuned in. And the good news is that it’s never too late to get started.

The article is divided into five parts.  This article will focus on EAT

Small changes in your eating habits can lower your risk for many of the diseases associated with aging.

Eat
Small changes in your eating habits can lower your risk for many of the diseases associated with aging.

LOSE JUST A LITTLE BIT OF WEIGHT
Small changes in body weight can have a big impact on health risks. Losing just 5 percent of your body weight has been shown to reduce your risk for diabetes and heart disease and improve metabolic function in liver, fat and muscle tissue. That means a 200 pound person can reap big health benefits just by losing 10 pounds. While we’d all love to shed all of our extra pounds, it’s a lot easier to start with a 5 percent weight loss goal and keep it off.
AVOID PROCESSED MEAT
Processed meats like hot dogs and sausages have been salted, cured or smoked to enhance flavor and improve preservation. A number of studies have found associations between eating a lot of processed meats and poor health. A Harvard review found that eating one serving a day of processed meats like bacon, sausage and deli meats was associated with a 42 percent higher risk of heart disease and 19 percent increased risk of diabetes. But there was no increase in risk associated with eating unprocessed red meat. Notably, the culprit in processed meats wasn’t the saturated fat or cholesterol — both whole cuts of meat and processed meats contained the same amount per serving. The big differences were the levels of sodium and chemical preservatives. Processed meats had about four times more sodium and 50 percent more nitrate preservatives than unprocessed meats. Other research has implicated processed meats in a higher risk for colon cancer.
EAT BLUE (AND OTHER COLORS)
While you shouldn’t plan your health around any one “super food,” there’s a lot to be said for eating blueberries. In one review of the eating habits of 187,000 male and female health workers, eating three or more servings of blueberries a week was associated with a 26 percent lower risk for diabetes. Another study found that eating the equivalent of a cup of blueberries a day lowered blood pressure. Most of us can’t eat a daily cup of blueberries. But the lesson is to add darkly colored fruits and vegetables — blueberries, cherries, spinach and kale — to your diet. They are loaded with nutrients, fiber and carotenoids. They will also fill you up so you’re less likely to binge on junk food.
SKIP PACKAGED FOODS
The best eating strategy for aging well is to skip processed foods and beverages. That will immediately eliminate added sugars from your diet. How do you know if a food is processed? One good indicator is if it comes in a package that has to be ripped open. Think chips, granola bars, junk food, fast food, frozen pizza, etc. There are, of course, some exceptions to the rule. Some whole, unprocessed foods that are good for you come in packages by necessity. Think nuts, eggs, olive oil and milk to name a few. Try to live by the one ingredient rule. If a packaged food contains only one ingredient (ground turkey, for instance) it’s probably a reasonable choice.

Once you cut out packaged foods, you will start eating a lot more fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish and whole grains. This is essentially a Mediterranean diet, which has been shown in numerous studies to be good for you. Harvard Men’s Health Watch offers a quick-start guide to the Mediterranean diet. If you prefer another eating plan, then go for it. Whether it’s a vegan diet based on the China Study, low-carb eating advocated by Atkins or the South Beach Diet, or trendy plans like the Whole 30 diet, all of these diets are based on whole, real foods that don’t come in packages.

WHAT ABOUT SUPPLEMENTS?
Study after study has seemed to debunk the benefit of taking supplements. Fish oil is one of the most widely used supplements to combat the effects of aging, but numerous studies show it has no benefit. There’s some evidence that vitamin B12 is good for the aging brain, but most evidence suggests we get enough of it from our diet. A doctor can test you to find out if you have a deficiency. The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements offers a fact sheet on B12. And lately, vitamin D has become popular, but again, there’s no strong evidence showing that we need to take more of it.

In fact, a 2010 Institute of Medicine report found that very few people were vitamin D deficient and that randomized trials found no particular benefit for healthy people to take added vitamin D. The best advice about supplements: Save the money you would spend on them and invest in a new pair of walking shoes, a gym membership or a delicious healthy meal with your family and other loved ones. All of those are likely to do more for your emotional and physical health than a supplement.