Telomeres: Evidence Our Food Choices Affect Longevity

What if you could measure the effect that the foods you eat have on the length of your life? Might you change your mind about reaching for that bag of chips?

Research is revealing how different foods affect the length of our telomeres. Scientists consider these tiny caps at the end of each of our chromosomes to be a reliable mark of biological age and of our risk of developing age-related diseases.

Telomeres and Their Importance

The word telomere comes from the Greek “telos,” meaning “end,” and “meros,” meaning “part”; telomeres are the protective end parts of our chromosomes.

Telomeres cap the ends of our chromosomes and protect our DNA by preventing chromosomes from breaking down and fusing with other chromosomes during replication.

Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, and the cell’s lifespan decreases, resulting in cellular aging. Eventually, telomeres get so short that the cell can die. Shortened telomeres have been associated with increased risks of cardiovascular diseasescancer, and other metabolic conditions.

Many scientists refer to telomeres as the molecular clock of our cells because as our age increases, our telomeres get shorter. But not everyone’s telomeres shorten at the same rate—some people’s telomeres shorten faster than others’. Scientists have been trying to understand how and why.

Telomeres naturally shorten as we age, but research has shown that they are also shortened by smokingalcoholchronic stress, lack of exercise, obesity, and poor diet.

Foods That Affect Telomere Length

An article on a follow-up study published in The Lancet Oncology in 2013 by Dr. Dean Ornish and others showed the effect that comprehensive lifestyle changes, including to diet, activity, stress, and social support, could have on telomerase activity and telomere length.

Telomerase is an enzyme that can restore telomeres and potentially slow cellular aging.

Participants in the study ate a diet high in whole foods, plant-based protein, fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains, and legumes and low in fat (about 10 percent of calories) and refined carbohydrates.

The study found that at the end of the five-year follow-up, telomeres shortened in the control group (as would be expected after five years) and that in the lifestyle intervention group, telomeres actually increased in length.

review published in Metabolism states that consuming antioxidant-rich, plant-derived foods helps to maintain telomere length.

The review also states that, by contrast, total and saturated fat intake and the consumption of refined flour cereals, meat, meat products, and sugary sweetened beverages are associated with shortened telomeres.

five-year cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stated that dietary factors affect telomere length through oxidation and inflammation-related mechanisms.

The study aimed to determine whether diet-associated inflammation could modify the rate at which telomeres shorten after five years.

The analysis showed that diets with more anti-inflammatory potential could slow the rate of telomere shortening. Additionally, the participants eating a more inflammatory diet after a five-year follow-up had an almost two-fold higher risk of accelerated telomere shortening than those eating an anti-inflammatory diet.

study published in Public Health Nutrition created a dietary inflammatory index to compare diverse populations on the inflammatory potential of their diets. It found that some of the most inflammatory foods are saturated fat, cholesterol, and trans fats.

Saturated fats are found in butter, ghee, suet, lard, coconut oil, and palm oil, cakes, biscuits, fatty cuts of meat, sausages, bacon, cured meats like salami, chorizo, cheese, and pancetta, according to the UK’s National Health Service.

Cholesterol is also pro-inflammatory. Dietary cholesterol is a prominent steroid found in animal tissues. Primary food sources include egg yolk, shrimp, beef, pork, poultry, cheese, and butter.

Trans fat is another highly inflammatory food thought to accelerate the shortening of our telomeres. Foods that contain trans fats include commercial baked goods, shortening, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, fried foods, nondairy coffee creamer, and margarine, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Conversely, one of the most anti-inflammatory food components is fiber.

In a study on dietary fiber and telomere length in 5,674 U.S. adults, researchers found that for each increase of one gram of fiber per 100 dietary calories, telomeres were 8.3 base pairs longer.

Meta-analysis results in the same study indicate that for every 10-gram increase in fiber consumption, the risk of death decreases by 11 percent. When adults with high fiber intake were compared with those with low intake, mortality was 23 percent lower among those with high consumption.

Humans have made great progress in improving our health in the past 150 years and have dramatically increased our lifespans, mainly thanks to increased access to clean water, improved sanitation, and greater access to basic medical care. Based on this research into diet and telomeres, the foods we eat appear to be one more factor in longevity.

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