Many of us will hope that our advancing years enrich our lives with the wealth of experience and perhaps degree of wisdom they bring. However, this romantic notion of ageing is somewhat tempered by a somewhat bleaker side; that of increased susceptibility to all manner of undesirable conditions and a greater chance of us shuffling off this mortal coil. Stories of cigarette-toting centenarians and 40-year-old men dropping dead on the squash court do tend to give the impression that our health and longevity are pretty much in the lap of the Gods, and things over which we have relatively little control. However, experimental work over the last couple of decades has shown that the ageing process is intimately related to what we eat, and has thrown up some promising dietary approaches to adding both years to our life and life to our years.
Scientific studies suggest at the heart of the ageing process are destructive molecules called free radicals. By-products of the reactions that generate energy in the body, free radicals have the capacity to damage the body’s cells, and have been implicated in all the diseases associated with ageing including heart disease, cancer, arthritis, dementia and cataract formation. Free radicals are believed to a major driving force in the processes that speed ageing in the body and hasten our demise.
Because the bulk of free-radicals in the body come from the burning of food to make energy, it has been mooted that the more we eat, the more internal damage and ageing effects we can expect to endure. Animal studies show that restricting calories slows the decline in bodily signs of ageing over time and delays the onset of diseases such as cancer, diabetes and cataract. Cutting back on food has been found to extend the life spans of a wide variety of animals including mammals. While human studies in this area are impractical, all the evidence points to the notion that one way to combat the ageing process might be, quite simply, to eat less.
I have to say, I find the concept of going short on food a little hard to swallow. My experience is that hunger is common springboard into the consumption of crappy and unwholesome foods. However, I’ve noticed in practice that individuals who start to eat more nutritious foods, generally end up eating less too. By concentrating on the quality of the diet in the first instance, any issues around quantity often take care of themselves. Eating a healthy diet seems to give the body all the nourishment it needs without overburdening it with unnecessary calories.
Perhaps the most nutritious foods of all are vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and asparagus. These and other vegetables tend to be rich in antioxidants; chemical entities such as beta-carotene and vitamin C that have the capacity to combat the carnage wreaked by free radicals in the body. A wealth of evidence now exists which shows that a diet rich in veggies is associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and cataracts. One study estimated that upping our vegetable quota by just 50 g each day could reduce risk of premature death a satisfying 20 per cent. Loading up on nutrient-dense yet calorie-light vegetables appears to be one simple and effective strategy for ensuring we live to a ripe old age.