Food can be your greatest ally when it comes to living longer and livelier. We've known this for thousands of years: the Greek physician, Hippocrates, said more than 2 000 years ago: “Let food be your medicine.”
But somewhere along the way we lost the way: junk food, saturated fats, refined grains, hormones and antibiotics in foodstuffs.
Almost everything you eat – or drink – has a positive or negative impact. So, it makes absolute sense, if you want to live not only longer but livelier, to make informed choices about what goes into that grocery bag.
It’s almost a no-brainer: the better you eat, the more gracefully and gorgeously you will age. Food plays a crucial role in the proper functioning of all aspects of the body, from a good skin, to a clear-thinking brain, to staving off diseases. So yes, it’s true: you really are what you eat.
The International Institute for Anti-Ageing (IIAA), which this year opened a branch in Cape Town, reports that a United Nations (UN) study shows that 2 billion people worldwide suffer from “hidden hunger”. This means they have vitamin and mineral deficiencies that undermine their mental and physical health.
As you process food for energy, your body produces substances called free radicals. These are believed to contribute to ageing and certain related diseases.
To defuse free radicals, your body uses antioxidants — certain vitamins, minerals and enzymes — that come from the food you eat. Some commonly known antioxidants include:
Nutritionist and author of The Optimum Nutrition Bible, Patrick Holford, speaking at an IIAA Cape Town workshop, took the quests for 'ageless ageing' further: he said he believed the key nutrients are vitamin A, zinc, omegas 3 and 6, vitamin C and antioxidants. “There is no reason for us to lose our marbles as we get on in life,” he added.
The best source of these antioxidants is a diet which includes a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. However, modern food production and storage may mean the nutritional value of these is diminished before they come to your table, so your doctor may recommend using supplements.
Certain medical conditions, such as macular degeneration, also often mean your body needs the added boost delivered by supplemental antioxidants.
Anti-inflammatory foods may play a big role in limiting DNA damage and ageing by fighting those processes that can negatively affect every cell in your body over time. They can take the bat to the Big Five we all want to avoid: heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's.
There's a buzz around the idea of what's being called “caloric restriction”: there's a direct link between longevity and keeping yourself a little hungry. The idea is that though you eat less, you make sure you eat nutrient-rich food: a case of not only what you eat but how much you eat.
The five steps to success
Dr Geraldine Mitton, Cape Town-based anti-ageing practitioner and author, has an action plan regarding eating habits and staying younger and healthier. Her five-step approach is to:
have a rainbow of five different colours of food on your plate;
eat less and drink more water;
improve your digestion, gut and liver function, and take supplements if necessary;
detox your diet, environment and emotions regularly; and
nourish your skin from within.
What are the nutraceuticals (foods said to have a medicinal effect on human health) which may play a role in inflammation, disease and DNA damage?
Mitton advises that we include, daily, the following in our diet: water, fruit and vegetables, whole grains and cereals, low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds, and olive oil. On a weekly basis, include eggs, poultry, legumes and fish. Eat red meat and fats sparingly, as well as sugar, cakes, pastries, sweets, white bread and pasta (though wheat-free goods are fine).
Find the lesser-known antioxidants in the following places:
CoQ10 is a fat-soluble, vitamin-like substance in every human cell. It is a powerful antioxidant vital for proper cell functioning, which in turn allows for bodily functions such as healing wounds, muscle movement and digestion of food. It also appears to protect against heart disease, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases and fibromyalgia.
From the age of 20 the body gradually produces less adequate amounts of CoQ10. Stress and certain medications also lower the production of CoQ10.
And just how effective is CoQ10 when it comes to skin care? As we age, free radicals hamper collagen production, resulting in sagging and wrinkling. While researchers have found that CoQ10 infiltrates skin cells fairly easily, it remains uncertain whether the creams we see on shelves contain enough active CoQ10 to make a real difference to the quality of our skin.
Find it in: organ meats such as heart, liver and kidney as well as in beef, soybean oil, sardines, mackerel and peanuts. High cooking temperatures may, however, destroy much of it.
CoQ10 supplements are available, but the American Heart Foundation has steered clear, until more clinical trials are conducted, of recommending people to take it regularly.
This potent antioxidant has been attracting a lot of attention for its role in the prevention and therapy of a broad spectrum of diseases.
It is found in small amounts in all cells of the body, and is considered more powerful than vitamin C and E, which makes it a distinct force in the anti-ageing process.
ALA is special because it is the only antioxidant able to deactivate free radicals that are both fat soluble and water soluble.
It is also recognised for regenerating antioxidants like vitamin C, Coenzyme Q10, glutathione and vitamin E into their original form.
The antioxidant has also been making news as an effective way for treating diabetes and repairing the immune system of HIV patients, though it is not recommended that diabetics medicate themselves until further studies are completed.
Find it in: potatoes, carrots, broccoli, yeasts and red meat. ALA is also available in supplements or in creams and no serious side effects are known.
Never underestimate the power of soil. Selenium is a mineral with powerful antioxidant components found mainly in soil – the higher the level of selenium in the soil, the higher the selenium level in the meat or plant you are eating.
While a lack of selenium will not directly lead to disease, it will make the immune system more vulnerable to illness.
In addition, the mineral, taken as a supplement or used as a cream, protects the skin from the ageing effects of UV rays and sun burning. Adequate amounts of selenium will also assist in treating and preventing age-related diseases like arthritis and heart disease.
Find it in: Plant foods like Brazil nuts, brown rice, salmon, shellfish, broccoli, brewer’s yeast, garlic, liver and dairy products.
You won't find this in foodstuffs, but melatonin is something else to think about. When you see your face in the mirror now, do you look as if you can never get enough beauty sleep?
That could be because the hormone melatonin, produced by the pineal gland at the centre of the brain and which prepares the body for sleep, decreases as we get older.
This could be why so many elderly people have difficulty sleeping. Scientists suspect melatonin encourages sleep, boosts a healthy sleep pattern and helps prevent jet lag.
The hormone has also been recognised for its anti-ageing properties, and studies have found its antioxidant properties can be used as a supplement to treat and help prevent free-radical damage to cells.
While the hormone is readily available at most pharmacies, it is advised you do not self-medicate as it is not suitable for all sleep-deprived people. Side effects include drowsiness, depression and headache. First discuss its use with your doctor.