Along with exercising, avoiding toxins, and reducing stress, what you eat can have powerful effects on how you age. It's not as simple as sipping from the Fountain of Youth -- there's no single ingredient that battles aging -- but adopting the right dietary patterns can keep you looking young.
The best part is, it's never too late to get started. Even people who adopt these eating habits later in life can reap the rewards.
Here's how to attack the root causes of wrinkles, dull skin, and other pitfalls of aging -- with your fork.
Fruits and vegetables contain a wide range of healthy antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that increase the chances you'll age healthfully. One powerful antioxidant that protects skin from environmental damage is lycopene. Get it from tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit.
Studies also suggest that people with diets high in fruits and vegetables enjoy a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, plus better memory and eyesight. So, on top of fighting the signs of aging that show up on your skin, those are five great reasons to get your five to nine daily servings of produce.
Avoid the saturated fats found in animal foods, which increase the odds of cardiovascular disease. Also steer clear of trans fats (found in margarine and many processed foods), which promote inflammation that causes the effects of aging to worsen.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in foods like fish, flaxseed, and walnuts protect your hair from dryness and add moisture to your locks for shiner, healthier-looking strands. Aim for two to three servings of oily fish a week and you'll also be boosting your skin's glow, along with your heart and brain health.
Vitamin C -- found in foods such as oranges, pink grapefruits, red peppers, papayas, broccoli, kale, and baked potatoes -- is an excellent source of antioxidants, which strengthen skin tissue and help skin repair itself. It also has properties capable of penetrating deep within the skin to provide healthier and younger-looking skin, so this is one vitamin worth looking for at the store.
Baked goods and white bread score high on the glycemic index (GI), a rank of foods based on how they make blood sugar rise. The body quickly digests high-GI foods and converts them to sugar, which triggers insulin release -- upping your risk of age-related diseases like diabetes. Sugars also cause chemical reactions in the body that promote inflammation.
Avoid foods made from flour, such as crackers and pretzels, as well as all soda. Instead, choose foods including brown rice, oatmeal, barley, oats, and rye. Keep in mind that pasta has a better GI score than many other flour-based products, especially when you cook it al dente. Japanese soba noodles make another good (and delicious) choice.
Highly processed foods cheat you out of protective nutrients. On the way from the farm to your plate, hundreds of vitamins, minerals, antiaging antioxidants, and proteins can get lost in industrialized production. Often high in trans fat, processed foods can trigger inflammation. When possible, opt for locally grown and in-season choices, which are more likely to retain their nutrients.
At 50 to 160 calories per cup, many juices deliver vitamin C and other antiaging antioxidants. Squeeze your own to ensure freshness and avoid added sugars, flavors, and artificial colors. If that's not feasible, read juice labels carefully; even some so-called "healthy" brands contain added sugar.
When it comes to food and aging, remember how to eat, not just what to eat. David Rakel, M.D., director of the University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine program, says we should have "a whole ceremony around eating" -- an approach practiced by many in Mediterranean countries. That means savoring and enjoying our food and the company around the table. "This probably has more of an effect on aging well than asking, 'What's the active ingredient in this red fruit?' " Rakel adds.
Water carries nutrients to cells, moistens membranes, and helps flush out toxins and waste. Without enough moisture, even your skin cells can get dried out and dull-looking. Since research has debunked the notion that everyone needs eight glasses of water a day, stay hydrated by drinking when you're thirsty and after exercise.
Make pure, clean water your beverage of choice. "Drink filtered water whenever possible," says Kathie Swift, R.D., nutrition director of the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. "Store it in stainless steel thermoses rather than plastic containers." If you crave more flavor, squeeze in a lemon or lime rather than buying flavored waters that contain sweeteners or artificial colors.
Notice when you're full. It's important, since so many diseases of aging are caused or worsened by obesity. Traditionally, Okinawans end their meal according to "hara hachi bu," which means "at 80 percent full."
"By making wise food choices now, both in terms of what you eat and how, you can increase your chances of aging gracefully," says Andrew Weil, M.D., author of "Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being."
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