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Diet, Aging, and “Inevitability”

Paleo plate

No diet will make you young forever. It’s a seductive promise, and it certainly sells plenty of books and supplements, but it’s a lie: human beings just do get old and there’s no way to prevent it.

But that doesn’t mean you need to get old faster than necessary. Accepting your own mortality is one thing; accepting premature disability is very different. Huge numbers of people today just accept any and all health problems after 25 as “aging” and never even consider trying to change their diet or lifestyle to manage those aching knees, twinging back, or ever-expanding beer belly.

Actually, though, a lot of those problems are diet-related, and what’s “inevitable” on a typical American diet might not look so inevitable to a person who’s actually eating well. So without promising immortality, here’s a quick run-down of a few common signs of aging that we often take as unavoidable and how diet can actually help modify them.

Skin Aging

Nobody’s skin at 40 looks exactly like it did at 15 (and considering typical 15-year-old skin, maybe that’s not so terrible!) but a lot of skin aging isn’t actually the effects of aging; it’s more about diet and lifestyle factors. This article has more on eating for skin health, but essentially two of the best things you can do to keep your skin young are:

If you’re eating Paleo, you’ve already got those two down pat – just go easy on the nuts and seeds and the Paleo candy, and enjoy your good skin.

Brain Aging

Do people inevitably get more forgetful as they age? Maybe, but there’s also some evidence that it’s modulated by diet. For example, this review suggested a role for antioxidants from fruits, vegetables, and spices in preventing age-related changes in the brain. Considering that older adults often have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables and rarely get enough of them, it does raise the question: is that memory loss inevitable, or is it partly an effect of diet?

Other potentially important nutrients include Omega-3 fats and B vitamins. Supplements specifically haven’t panned out as well as researchers hoped, though: possibly there’s some kind of synergy among nutrients in whole foods that we haven’t been able to replicate in supplement form. In any case, the evidence suggests that a healthy diet is probably better than Wonderbread and a bottle full of pills.

There’s also a macronutrient connection. A typical American diet is high in refined carbs and low (or even deficient) in protein and healthy fats. This isn’t exactly a recipe for metabolic health: it tends to cause insulin resistance and other problems of carbohydrate metabolism. And those problems are actually a big factor in brain health, including serious neurodegenerative diseases. Alzheimer’s in particular is being described as “Type 3 Diabetes” – in other words, a problem of carbohydrate metabolism.

That doesn’t mean that “carbs cause Alzheimer’s” (here’s a great explanation of why it doesn’t work like that), and it doesn’t mean that improving metabolic health will prevent or cure it: neurological diseases are complicated and have all kinds of different factors. But it does suggest that the kind of brain decline so common on a high-refined-carb Western diet might not be so inevitable in people who eat a little better.

A couple different studies have shown that Paleo works very well for improving insulin sensitivity – if you want to give your metabolic health a boost, a moderate amount of carbs from whole foods is a pretty good trail to follow.

Bones and Joints

Paleo can also help with the creaky knees, aching fingers, and other bone and joint issues that seem to collect over time.

First of all a fair amount of “age”-related damage is actually years of overuse injuries catching up. The Paleo approach to exercise is designed to avoid exactly this problem: frequent rest days, lots of recovery, and a minimum of pounding out the mileage on harsh concrete sidewalks.

Paleo food is also high in bone-building nutrients, and not just calcium – calcium is important, and it comes from plenty of places other than dairy, but it’s not the final word on keeping your hips fracture-free past age 40. Protein, magnesium, and Vitamin D are also important, just to name a few.

Paleo is also protective against the various different forms of arthritis and general joint “aches and pains” because it’s a highly anti-inflammatory diet (protecting against osteoarthritis) and eliminates many dietary triggers of autoimmune disease (like rheumatoid arthritis). Yes, some achiness is part of aging, but a lot is just the cumulative effect of years of irritation and inflammation – you don’t have to do that to your body!

Immunity

red meat & eggs

Red meat and egg yolks are delicious sources of important immune nutrients like B vitamins and protein.

Aging is hard on your immune system – it’s one of the reasons why common viral diseases like the flu are so much more dangerous in older people than in their children and grandchildren. Immunosenescence is the fancy word for this; basically, it just means your immune system is getting old.

Many people talk about this as if it’s inevitable – it’s just something that happens. This study has some questions for that theory, though:

This study also suggests that Vitamin E might be helpful specifically for immune-related aging, and this one also notes the role of probiotics and increased Omega-3 fats.

In other words, maybe immune decline is about nutrition, not just the number of years since you were born. And in that case, it would be modifiable with a nutrient-dense, protein-rich diet.

Without worrying about all of these vitamins individually, a Paleo diet should provide all of them, especially if you’re eating all of the below:

Summing it Up

Lousy nutrition is so common today that we have a completely skewed version of what “natural aging” actually is. On the one hand, we’re surrounded by completely unrealistic media images of what people look like as they age – many “mothers” in major movies are only a few years older than their “children.”

But at the same time that we’re all trying to look so young, we also accept feeling old way too early. Yes, aging is going to happen. But it doesn’t have to happen at 35! A lot of the supposedly “inevitable” problems of aging actually have a dietary component – what’s “inevitable” on a high-junk diet just isn’t “inevitable” in the same way on a nutrient-dense diet of whole foods.

No diet can guarantee immortality. But proper nutrition can go a long way towards preventing what can be prevented, instead of just accepting it as a foregone conclusion.