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Aging – if you’re alive, you’re doing it. Considering the alternative, aging is a gift to be grateful for – and it’s up to you to age as well as you possibly can, even if you haven’t always treated your body like a temple. The good news is that many studies show that it’s never too late to launch new habits and start enjoying the health benefits. So, paying close attention to basic-but-essentials like how much you move, relax, sleep, and what you eat, it all can have a profound impact on your lifespan and healthspan (aka, how much healthy life you pack into your years).
Though there’s no shortage of hacks you can use to age in a healthier way, if I had to call out just one anti-aging secret, I’d have to start with your diet – not only what you eat, but how and when. The way you nurture your body and mind with food has an enormous impact on how long you live and how vibrantly you live out those years. But pushing beyond the all-purpose “eat-your-greens” whole foods approach, there are specific dietary adjustments you can make that will begin to return visible and “feel-able” positive effects virtually overnight.
To get started on tweaking your natural anti-aging processes, consider any one of these four dietary approaches – and tap into the fountain of youth, asap:
1) Eat Less, Live Longer
One of the simplest techniques to help slow the hands of time: moderate your total daily food intake. Also known as caloric restriction, this approach is great for those type A folks who like to keep a close watch on the numbers, and for anyone who’s struggled with weight issues and needs to exercise more control over what goes down the hatch. It’s also worth noting that studies in rats show that a 30% reduction in daily calories translates to a longer life. OK, we’re talking rats here, but another study on rhesus monkeys demonstrated the same principle – less food, more years.
Although ‘restriction’ may sound unpleasant (and really, just about any conventional diet is a form of caloric restriction), it doesn’t have to be. When done intelligently and with appropriate amounts of protein, fiber and good fats on the menu, caloric restriction is an excellent way to improve mitochondrial function (which decreases with age) and increase longevity. We’re talking nutrient-dense; organic or local produce, nuts, seeds, legumes and limited amounts of wild fish, organic poultry and pasture-raised meats. You can try to game the system with a couple of Lean Cuisines and fistfuls of popcorn every day to keep the numbers low but the health and longevity benefits will go up in smoke.
If closely monitoring your food intake is not totally your thing, you can get roughly the same benefits by following the Japanese precept of hara hachi bunme, the practice of eating only until you’re 80% full. That habit, along with a fish and veggie-rich diet, is thought to play a significant role in Japanese longevity.
2) Curb Carbs, and Don’t Fear Healthy Fat
Doubtless, you’re familiar with idea of a ketogenic diet which, in simplest terms, is a fat-friendly, moderate protein, extremely low-carb plan – as in, virtually no sugar or refined carbs – which, over time, shifts your metabolism from a carbohydrate or glucose-burning machine to a fat-burning one. While most people who gravitate to this style of eating love the rapid weight loss and high satiety benefits, very low-carb diets also have another less well-known upside, which is, that they also help slow the aging process by suppressing the mTOR (mechanistic Target of Rapamycin) gene. Activation of this mTOR gene can contribute to many of the diseases of aging and decrease longevity. Though low-carb and ketogenic diets aren’t immediately thought of as youth-boosters, when done right with extra leafy greens, non-starchy veggies and minimal ‘dirty keto’ shortcuts (whose recipes tend to involve a lot of processed, low-sugar, low-carb Frankenfoods), going low carb can help turn back the clock on any number of aging markers, without letting hunger pangs get the best of you.
3) Eat Late in the AM, Early in the PM
For thousands of years, fasting – the practice of abstaining from food and drink for a prescribed period – has been used for religious reasons, as a form of political protest or simply to minimize the effects of overdoing it at the buffet table. No matter the reason why, however, the physical upsides of fasting include eating less overall, balancing blood sugar, supporting weight loss, boosting cognitive performance, promoting mitochondrial function, stimulating autophagy (cellular repair) , protecting against most diseases of modern civilization and probably the best anti-aging hack there is.
While the practice of fasting has remained mostly unchanged through the ages, fasting’s modern incarnation is the easier-to-manage protocol referred to as time restricted eating, the simplest form being intermittent fasting or ‘IF’ – and it’s more about meal timing, and less about skipping meals (though you can if the spirit moves you*).
So, what is it? It’s about doing breakfast late and dinner early. Why do it? Because the fasting period between your last meal of one day and the first day of the next lightly stresses your metabolism, in a good way, allowing you to metabolize food more efficiently and yes, turn down the mTOR, which is what you want to do as you get older.! And, it is a hassle-free way to improve basic health measures like blood sugar, blood pressure, weight and cut disease risk. For some people, it’s positive effects can be enough to even eliminate the need for pharma drugs – and that’s a big plus in my book.
4) Decrease Animal Proteins
And finally, if you want to age well, then I highly recommend, you step back a little from the meat counter, and cut back somewhat on animal protein, especially red meat. It contains high amounts of branched chain amino acids like leucine, which stimulate mTOR. Plant protein doesn’t have nearly as much, keeping your mTOR in check and keeping autophagy – the ingenious cellular renewal process which salvages worn-out cells and recycles them for energy and new cells – in fighting trim. All good reasons to dial up the plant protein and turn down the meat and dairy. Trade them in for excellent sources of plant protein, like lentils; chickpeas; almonds; walnuts; sunflower seeds; organic tempeh; nut butter; pea protein powder; hemp powder, etc.
I am not suggesting you ditch animal protein altogether, but rather, consider reframing your approach to animal protein. Enjoy it occasionally or 2 -3 times a week instead of daily, and when you do tuck in, make your animal protein serving more of an accompaniment, as in a side-dish-sized accent rather than the main event on your plate.
Also don’t worry that by cutting back you won’t be getting enough protein; be it plant or animal style. Most folks until age 65, get enough without having to try that hard, so for a middle-aged, 150-pound person, roughly 55 grams a day should be fine. However by about the age of 65, protein needs shift and getting enough becomes extremely important to help slow sarcopenia— loss of muscle mass—a natural (but frustrating) part of the aging process. At this point, I recommend upping protein intake by about 25 percent, plus exercise and strength training to help preserve muscle.
(*) NOTE: There are some people who shouldn’t fast. Don’t fast if you’re on multiple medications, if you’re an athlete training at a high level, if you’re extremely stressed, or if you have a history of disordered eating. If you’re pregnant, don’t fast. Kids shouldn’t fast. If you have any concerns, check with your doctor first.