How do the foods we choose to eat and the nutrients within them affect how we age? It’s a very simple question, yet the answer is anything but simple.
Manipulating a single dietary factor such as calorie intake, or a single nutrient such as vitamin C, only gives us a partial picture of their true effects. To see the full picture, we need to take a much broader approach.
According to the latest scientific research, the “perfect” anti-aging diet and lifestyle depends a lot on your age and stage in life.
The idea of optimum nutrition is complex because it depends on so many factors that impact people in different ways. What’s best for one person will be different from another depending on age, gender, race, genetics, and individual quirks of biochemistry.
The biological aging process itself is also complex and there are half a dozen theories as to what “aging” even is. To overcome these difficulties, The Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University used an approach that incorporates sophisticated multidimensional modeling techniques to assess the impact of nutrition on aging.
The Power of GFN
They used an approach called the Geometric Framework for Nutrition (GFN) which deals with dietary complexity by considering multiple dimensions of nutrient intake simultaneously.
An early example of its use in fruit flies found that when confined to one of 28 different diet formulations, lifespan was maximized on diets with low protein to carbohydrate ratios (1 :16 protein to carbohydrate).
In another study, mice were confined to one of 25 diets varying systematically in protein, carbohydrate, fat, and energy content. Researchers found that the average lifespan was greatest for those on the diet with intakes low in protein, low in fat and high in carbohydrates, with the ratio of protein to carbohydrate – not the number of calories eaten – having the most significant effect on longevity.
However, this advantage disappeared in old age when higher protein became more important for increasing lifespan and reducing late-life mortality.
Measuring Biological Age
In terms of biological aging, different methods to quantify it have been developed. When tested, contrary to expectations, little agreement could be found between them, and they may in fact be measuring different aspects of the aging process.
To overcome such inconsistencies the researchers used a new approach to measure the effects of aging via the breakdown in homeostatic regulation (i.e., dysregulation) across physiological systems. I know it’s fancy medical jargon, but in other words, researchers measured the loss of homeostasis– or balance– in the body as a whole, and they did it by looking at various blood markers.
For the study the researchers analyzed data from 1,560 randomly selected Canadian men and women, aged 67 to 84 who were re-examined every year for three years and followed for more than four years.
After adjusting their models for income, education level, age, physical activity, number of chronic conditions, gender, and current smoking status, they observed four broad patterns:
- The measuring scale matters. The optimal level of nutrient intake was dependent on the aging metric used. Elevated protein intake improved or depressed some aging parameters, whereas elevated carbohydrate levels improved or depressed others.
- Sometimes “average” is best. There were cases where mid-range levels of nutrients performed well for many outcomes (i.e., arguing against a simple more or less is better perspective).
- Extreme diets aren’t the best. There’s broad tolerance in the human body for nutrient intake patterns that don’t deviate too much from what’s considered normal in society.
- Nutritional balance matters. Optimal levels of one nutrient often depend on levels of another nutrient (e.g., vitamin E and vitamin C. For decades studies have shown that these two vitamins work together to protect one another and increase overall effectiveness). Simpler analytical approaches are insufficient to capture such associations.
After analyzing all the complex data, researchers came up with a more complex answer…
One Size Diet Really Doesn’t Fit All
The results of this study are consistent with earlier experimental work in laboratory mice showing, as previously referred to, that high-protein diets may accelerate aging earlier in life but are beneficial in later life.
Senior author Alan Cohen commented, saying, “Our approach presents a roadmap for future studies to explore the full complexity of the nutrition-aging landscape.
“This study…provides further support to the importance of looking beyond a single nutrient at a time as the one size fits all response to the age-old question of how to live a long and healthy life.
“…the qualitative finding that there are no simple answers to optimal nutrition is likely to hold up: it was evident in nearly all our analyses, from a wide variety of approaches, and is consistent with evolutionary principles and much previous work.”
This research is interesting and, in my opinion, makes sense. Over the years numerous alternative doctors have pointed to the fact that the average person has a harder time digesting protein with age, so therefore, a person may need more protein as they get older.
The research is still ongoing, of course, but I think it makes sense to increase your protein intake as you age. I’m not talking about eating more burgers and steaks but instead choosing healthy protein sources such as beans and legumes, nuts, eggs, and lean meats such as fish and chicken. Dairy products, in reasonable amounts, are also good sources of protein.