Ageing is inevitable, but how fast it happens is, in a lot of ways, up to you. As dietitian Brooke Longfield explains, it starts with what you eat.
It’s the little things we notice that make us feel like we’re getting older: the laugh lines around our eyes, our gradual loss of flexibility, or the dry skin on our elbows and heels. Perhaps it’s also the sore knee or stiff back.
But instead of combating ageing from the outside with expensive cosmetics and anti-wrinkle creams, it’s actually cheaper and more effective to fight it from the inside out.
After all, what you eat is one of the best predictors of how well you age. One recent study found that eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day can add three years to your life. New research also shows that what we eat in our 20s can impact our physical age in our 40s and 50s. And at each age in turn, the food choices we make have a long-term consequence on how we’re going to feel today, tomorrow and in 10 years’ time.
So whatever age you are now, here are some food investments you can make to benefit, and even slow, your ageing.
Feeling stiff in the joints?
One of the earliest signs of arthritis is stiffness and pain in our wrists, finger joints and hips. This inflammatory condition interferes with even basic daily tasks such as cooking, driving and walking.
Pain in our knees can also be caused by being overweight, which puts extra stress on our joints. This wear and tear may make us feel less inclined to continue our regular activity, as the pain interferes with mobility. However, keeping active can be key to weight loss. And in turn, this helps ease joint pain.
Carrying extra weight also increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Omega-3 fats in oily fish like salmon, tuna and sardines fight inflammation in stiff joints. Aim to include 150g of oily fish in your diet 2–3 times a week, and consider a fish oil supplement (of 2700mg) on top of this if you suffer from arthritis.
Any memory loss?
Forgetting where you put your keys may not necessarily be a sign that you’re getting old. For many of us, memory loss is largely due to the brain not getting enough of certain vitamins and minerals. Last year, an Australian study found that people who eat more high-fat and high-sugar processed food, like soft drinks and salty snacks, have smaller hippocampi — the part of the brain that’s critical for learning and memory.
The type of fat you eat is also important. Studies link a diet high in saturated fats — found in butter and processed meats like sausages, bacon and salami — to poor results in thinking and memory tests. Conversely, eating plenty of healthy unsaturated fats, like those found in salmon, nuts and avocado, has been shown to reduce the risk of developing dementia by half.
All nuts are rich in omega-3 fats, which play an important role in keeping your brain healthy. They are also high in vitamin E, an antioxidant that may reduce the likelihood of memory loss. Walnuts are especially beneficial, with a 2014 US study showing just a handful a day can help improve cognitive function.
These are packed with protein, vitamin B12 and iron. Eggs also contain choline, which has been shown to help memory and mental alertness. The Heart Foundation recommends eating up to six eggs a week.
How’s dem bones?
Strong bones are vital for preventing fractures and osteoporosis. The density of our bones starts to decrease from 35–40 years, and it occurs much faster in women.
If your body isn’t getting enough calcium from dairy foods like milk, cheese and yoghurt, it takes what it needs from your bones. This makes the bones weak, brittle and at risk of fractures.
Alarmingly, research shows just one in 10 Australians is meeting the recommended target of three serves of dairy each day. For women over the age of 50, the target is four serves.
On top of that, one in six Australians are unnecessarily avoiding milk and dairy foods in favour of dairy-free alternatives such as almond milk and coconut milk, which often lack calcium.
The key ingredient for strong bones is calcium-rich foods. And milk, yoghurt and cheese have the most calcium of all foods. So, meet your daily needs by pouring a cup of milk over your cereal in the morning, adding two slices (40g) of cheese to your sandwich or salad, and snacking on a small tub (200g) of plain yoghurt.
Choose unsweetened milk and yoghurt, and opt for reduced-fat dairy where possible. If you can’t tolerate cow’s milk, make sure that your milk alternative (such as soy milk) has been calcium fortified.
Taking care of your skin?
As we age, the fat and collagen directly under our skin diminishes, so there is less padding, especially in our face. This means our skin has less support, leading to wrinkles.
And if you are a smoker, spend lots of time in the sun, or regularly drink more than the recommended two drinks a day of alcohol, you’ll be noticing the wrinkles even sooner.
What we eat can also impact our skin. The chemicals released from certain foods can age us from the inside out. These chemicals are aptly called AGEs — advanced glycation end products — and research suggests that they speed up the loss of collagen in our skin. Foods high in AGEs include charred meat and fried foods, like hot chips.
Dehydration can cause our skin to look dry and wrinkled, as water plays a key role in maintaining elasticity and suppleness. Aim to drink 8–10 glasses of water each day, and remember that tea, coffee and alcohol are diuretics that can dehydrate your skin.
Vitamin C-rich fruit and veg
Vitamin C is essential for making collagen, which gives skin its strength and flexibility. Vitamin C also reduces the harmful effects of sun and smoke on your skin. So, fill your plate with fruit and vegetables that are rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, red capsicum, broccoli, strawberries and kiwifruit. All fruit and vegies in general help defend against AGEs, so eat plenty of them each day.
Are your eyes looking good?
While many of us find it harder to see things up close as we get older, it isn’t the only age-related eye problem. Macular degeneration is the loss of central vision. It makes it difficult for a person to see fine detail or even read this page.
It affects one in seven Australians over the age of 50. Research shows that heavy smoking and a diet high in trans fats (think packet biscuits and pastries) can increase your risk of developing this disorder, which is the leading cause of blindness.
For people who have diabetes, the right food choices can minimise the risk of developing eye complications such as glaucoma and cataracts.
Dark green, leafy vegetables
Baby spinach, kale and silverbeet are rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, which are vital for eye health. Just a half cup of spinach has nearly twice your daily lutein needs. It’s also found in peas and Brussels sprouts.
Consume these foods and drinks to help fight ageing!
It’s not just one food that holds the key to youthfulness: it’s a combination of these foods that help slow premature ageing.
Avocado has a trio of vitamin C, E and ‘good’ fats for skin, eyes and heart.
Salmon is rich in omega-3 fats for healthy joints and memory.
Berries are high in vitamin C and antioxidants for supple skin.
Milk is a great source of calcium for strong bones.
Nuts provide heart-healthy fats and selenium for healthy skin.
Green tea is high in antioxidants to protect from cancer and heart disease.
Spinach is full of protective antioxidants to fight age-related disease.
Eggs contains choline and omega-3 fats for brain health.
Water maintains elasticity and suppleness of skin.
Extra virgin olive oil contains heart-friendly fats and powerful antioxidants.
Antioxidants = anti-ageing
While supplements offer concentrated amounts of some antioxidants, research tells us the combination of antioxidants found in real foods benefits our long-term health the most.
Powerful antioxidants are found in colourful foods. Here are five easy ways to eat more antioxidants:
1. Snack on raw veg
Raw vegies have more antioxidants than cooked ones, as some vitamin C is lost through cooking (except tomatoes, which have more antioxidants when cooked).
2. Cook with spice
Herbs and spices are extremely high in antioxidants, so are a healthy way to add flavour to meals. Turmeric, chilli and cinnamon are especially high, so use these on a regular basis.
3. Eat the rainbow
The brighter the fruit or veg, the richer it is in antioxidants. Have three colours on your plate each night – e.g. orange sweet potato, broccoli, red capsicum.
4. Sip smarter
All types of tea are rich in antioxidants, but green tea has the most. Drink at least three cups a day to reap the benefits.
5. Leave the skin on
There are lots of antioxidants located close to the skin of fruit and veg. So don’t peel it off, eat it!