Thursday 26 April 2018

How to eat yourself young

When you choose protein from plant foods you get the added benefit of the fibre that they contain.
When you choose protein from plant foods you get the added benefit of the fibre that they contain.

Gaye Godkin

We age from the inside out, so it makes sense that whatever we put into our bodies has an effect on our external appearance. Nutritionist Gaye Godkin has some top tips on the best foods to curb inflammation, to boost vitamin D, and reduce your risk of heart disease

Finding the 'magic gene'

Most people would like to find the elixir of eternal youth. I think we would all agree that enjoying good health in old age is the icing on the cake of life. The good news is that scientists claim that most of the differences in ageing rates are down to environmental factors, rather than genes.

There is no single magic gene that can be altered or adjusted to stop ageing. The real ageing effect is from environmental influence. This theory comes from an area of science called 'epigenetics', meaning that genes are switched on and off depending on the environment in which the genes are bathed in.

Science can now measure many biomarkers and show how some people age naturally at a rate of 12 months per year, while others are speeding ahead, ageing three years every 12 months.

Positive lifestyle choices

As we get older our risk increases for all kinds of different diseases. A whopping 70pc of our current ailments are called non-communicable chronic illnesses. These diseases are primarily diet and lifestyle-related. To prevent these multiple diseases occurring, ageing itself has to be the target. By slowing down the cellular and molecular process, we can reduce the speed at which organs and tissues are damaged.

Just as hair goes grey and wrinkles appear, all parts of the body slowly deteriorate with age. However, someone who has never smoked, exercised regularly and eaten a healthy diet may have protected themselves against much of the ravages of time, whereas a person who lives an unhealthy lifestyle will speed up this process. Adopting positive lifestyle choices from an early age confers premium benefit.


Ireland has a greying population and people are living longer. This is reflected in an increase in the number of people suffering from age-related chronic inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, heart and lung diseases, cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis, and dementia.

Ageing is a progressive degenerative process tightly integrated with inflammation. In fact most conditions that are associated with the ageing body and mind are inflammatory.

Plant foods including herbs and spices modulate this inflammatory cell signalling and protect cells from oxidative stress.

Incorporating chopped herbs into foods such as coriander, parsley, basil, oregano, sage, ginger and garlic confer cellular protection and work as antioxidants to support cells and quench free radical damage.

Curcumin, the active component of turmeric, is particularly effective at mopping up cellular damage.

Telomeres and DNA

The biology of ageing is of huge importance with people living longer. In 2009 a major breakthrough in this area isolated little caps on the end of chromosomes which prevent damage to DNA. These caps are called telomeres, which unravel with the ageing process.

Telomeres grow shorter and eventually wear away completely as we grow older. Telomeres can now be used as a marker of how fast a person is ageing.

Scientists isolated the enzyme involved that is responsible for the demise of these telomeres. This enzyme, like all others, is activated depending on the environment it finds itself in.

Folate is a B vitamin and is involved in maintaining DNA integrity and protecting the telomeres from premature damage. Folate is found in all green vegetables and, also, avocado, peas, puy lentils and lamb's liver are all good sources. It is a water soluble vitamin and is not stored in the body. To ensure a constant supply of folate to the cells, it is required daily.

Cholesterol and oxidation of LDL and brain health

I work with many people who come to see me with elevated cholesterol levels. Raised cholesterol is part of the ageing process and is now thought to be in response to age-related inflammation.

Cholesterol is vital for the body to function. It is produced by the liver and its production increases when inflammation is present. It becomes a nuisance when the bad cholesterol level is raised.

Raised LDL cholesterol can cause difficulties as it tends to oxidise, which simply means it produces toxins in the arteries.

This oxidised cholesterol is involved in atherosclerosis, which is a cause of coronary heart disease and other forms of cardiovascular disease.

The brain is a fatty organ and cholesterol is a substantial component in the structure of the brain. To prevent LDL oxidation and damage to the delicate heart and brain cells, aim to incorporate foods high in vitamin E and C.

Great sources of E and C are avocados, olive oil, sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, spinach, broccoli, spinach, kiwis, apples and green vegetables.

Muscle and bone health

As we age muscle is our greatest asset. Muscle is involved in glucose storage and is metabolically more active than fat.

Maintenance of muscle mass is imperative to slowing down the ageing process. Dairy products and milk proteins are easily absorbed into muscle cells and contain certain amino acids that muscle cells like.

Muscle also has an important role in bone health as it provides protection to the skeleton.

One in two women over 60, and one in five men suffer with osteoporosis. This is a disease of multiple nutritional deficiencies, and not just calcium. Bone health is dependent on a diverse orchestra of nutrients, stress hormones and the immune system.

Vitamin D, which comes from sunshine, is vital for maintenance of bone mass. We do not get sufficient sunshine in Ireland. D is also vital for the immune function and brain health. It is advisable to take a supplement, particularly from October to April.

The Okinawa way

Okinawa is an island off the coast of Japan. It has the highest number of centenarians in the world. If you look at these centenarians, they don't die of common diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, or diabetes. They tend to remain physically and mentally well as they age. They lead active lives and are not debilitated.

Scientists have lived among these people for many years and found that their diet has played an enormous role in protecting them from typical Western illnesses.

They never eat until they are full. Okinawans observe the 80pc rule, meaning that they only eat until they are almost full. Their diet consists primarily of vegetables, seaweed, fermented soya foods and omega 3-rich fish daily. They eat very little meat and eat from small bowls. They have the lowest rate of heart disease and hormone-related cancers in the world.

Polyphenols - posh plant chemicals

We have so much to learn from the plant kingdom. If we consider how a small seed grows into a beautiful vegetable and negotiates bad weather, pests, bugs and survives many harsh conditions, it is truly a wonder of nature.

Polyphenols are potent antioxidant compounds found in plant foods. When we eat them, they confer enormous protection to the cells in our bodies, many of which have been linked to anti-ageing benefits and disease reduction.

Their health-conferring benefits depends on the amount that you consume and their bioavailability.

To have a good effect, they must be consumed daily and at each meal. We are all aware of the five-a-day message, however science would now tell us that we actually need to eat between seven and nine portions of plant food per day. Aim for five portions of vegetables and two to three of fruit. It is now apparent that these healthy chemicals act quickly in the body, but their effect is short lived, hence the need for frequent replenishment.

Balance blood sugars

The adrenal glands produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Higher levels of cortisol are observed in older people, this hormone is a contributing factor to blood sugar control and the onset of type 2 diabetes.

Balancing glucose availability to the cells is of primary importance to slow down oxidation and ageing. Aim to incorporate protein with each meal. Opt for a diversity of proteins and try not to rely on meat protein daily. There are many other sources of protein that are easier to digest and produce less waste. Eggs, yoghurts, cheese, nuts, peas, beans, pulses, fish and vegetables are all protein sources.

When you choose protein from plant foods you get the added benefit of the fibre that they contain. Fibre has a positive effect on blood sugar regulation and keeps you fuller for longer.

Microbiome diversity

The discovery of the human microbiome has been revolutionary in our understanding of human health. The microbiome is the name given to the population of bacteria and fungi which reside in our bodies.

The greatest collection of microbiota lives in the gut. These bacteria and fungi are protecting us from disease and illness. They are involved in vitamin synthesis, fatty acid production and they make energy. They are also involved in mood, genetic expression, the immune system and inflammation regulation. The aim of the game is to encourage the growth of the good bugs and keep the bad bugs at bay. Foods known as probiotics, which are fermented foods such as yoghurts, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh are live sources of good bugs.

When we eat them they strengthen the defence forces and support the microflora. The good bugs also relish foods high in fibre which the body cannot break down.

All vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains are sources of fuel for the microflora.

Major changes occur within the microflora community during the ageing process. So feed them well and keep your good bugs happy.

Health & Living

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life