We all know that getting too much sun and smoking can age us prematurely. But what role does diet play in how well we age?
To help us understand the role of diet in aging, WebMD turned to dietitian David Grotto, RD, LDN, a radio talk show host and author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life. Grotto believes that eating the right foods -- along with other healthy behaviors -- can help reverse the aging process. Here's what he had to say.
How can your diet help you look younger?
Skin is the largest organ in the body, so it's certainly worthwhile taking care of. Not having an adequate diet contributes to your skin's appearance in multiple ways. If we look at the skin's ability to protect itself from ultraviolet light, there are key nutrients involved in that. It's important to have vitamins A and C and D. These actually play a role in protecting skin from ultraviolet light.
How can food and nutrients reverse the aging process?
Basically, you're asking how do you restore elasticity to skin to give it a more supple look.
First, we have to talk about prevention. We can protect skin from ultraviolet light externally by using a sunblock. But you can do things like not smoking. Smoking damages the elastin that helps keep facial skin flexible.
Sleep is important in making sure skin gets proper rest to heal itself. Skin cells turn over at a rapid rate, and they need time to replenish and rebuild.
As for foods or nutrients that reverse aging -- vitamin A is certainly one of those, and it comes from a variety of sources. Carrots, apricots, nectarines, sweet potatoes, egg yolks, even some green things like spinach, broccoli. Collards are a great source of vitamin A.
Vitamin D -- your skin converts sun into vitamin D, but a lot of people have this sun phobia. You can get vitamin D from fortified foods like orange juice and milk. Research is showing that the lowly mushroom is also packed with vitamin D.
Vitamin C is critical for wound repair, for any type of tissue maintenance, and that applies to your skin. Tomatoes, citrus, kiwi -- they're all great sources.
At what age does the body start to decline? How can you stop that?
There's biological age and chronological age. We can't do anything about chronological age. But with biological age, lots of things can affect that -- smoking, not getting enough sleep, a poor diet, getting too much sun exposure.
Experts say avoid the sun -- but what else helps keep skin looking young?
Eating a healthy diet absolutely makes a difference. Getting the right nutrients is vital for repairing skin and getting new healthy cells to replace the damaged ones. Vitamins A, C, and D are important. But there may be some components in specific foods that help, too.
Avocados are a good source of vitamin E, which is also great for skin. In fact, an avocado has 20 vitamins and minerals.
How important are genetics to the aging process? Can you do anything to control your genes?
I'm not a genetics expert, but what I find truly amazing is when it's hard to distinguish who's the daughter and who's the mother. So there certainly is a thing of passing on good genes. But I think, too, that some mothers have passed along their commitment to a healthy lifestyle. That may be a good part of it.
What's your opinion about hormones and menopause? Do they slow down aging?
The whole concept of estrogen replacement therapy was about that. The only difficulty is the side consequences of doing that, potentially putting women at risk of heart disease.
So there are foods naturally rich in phytoestrogens that may help keep skin nice and supple. Soy is a good source. Beans and legumes are generally high in phytoestrogens. Flax, too. The key with those foods is not to wait until you turn 50 to suddenly start eating them. Start earlier eating moderate amounts of those foods.
There's a book out: Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat. It's very interesting because if anybody doesn't show their age, it's Japanese women. That's a nod to their diet historically. There definitely may be something there -- to eating tofu and vegetables.
But we in America tend to think more is better. In Japanese culture, soy is not the main thing on the plate. A handful of edamame, a little tofu in soup, is enough. You don't need to eat a whole brick of tofu. More is not necessarily better.
Why do some people follow a healthy lifestyle, eat a nutritious diet, yet still look older than their age?
I certainly have seen people who are ultra-fit, but they show a lot of the aging process going on. When you're subjecting the body to lots of physical stressors, like ultra-marathoners do, you have so low a percentage of body fat that the skin is not looking as youthful and supple as it could. On the other hand, the ultra-marathoner might outlive us all.
A lot of people who have been overweight all their lives, then lost weight, will have sagging skin that gives the appearance of aging. But that should never be a deterrent to losing weight. That's what plastic surgeons are for.
If you don't like oatmeal, what about Cheerios?
Research suggests that all oats are good for you. But I have to say, we were doing oatmeal research with Chicago firefighters, and it was 100 degrees in the firehouse. So I had them take Quaker Oats and make muesli out of it, not cook it. Three-quarters of a cup seems to be the magical amount. It's the soluble fiber that may play role in the aging process.
An interesting thing about oatmeal -- it makes your body produce nitric oxide, which helps blood to flow more freely. That allows more oxygen and nutrients to all the cells including skin cells.
The firefighters were saying they felt better, had more energy.
Are you Mr. Perfect? Do you do anything wrong?
I'm a guy who likes to eat. I became a dietitian not because I'm enamored of nutrients but because I love food.
Ironically, when I was writing about getting butts and guts smaller, mine got bigger. I gained 20 pounds while writing the book! My cholesterol shot up to 238! I realized, I'm not following my own advice. I would literally be sitting down till all hours -- typical new-writer syndrome. Midway into writing my book, my wake-up call was my cholesterol check.
In one month I lost 10 pounds and my cholesterol went down to 168 -- by adding in foods rather than taking them away.
The key was a hearty bowl of oatmeal I had every morning -- with a handful of almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, plus I added in fruits of every 'erry' -- cherry, raspberry, 'pomegranate-erry.' Every single day. I also ate three pieces of fatty fish a week. I also got a half-hour of physical activity every day. Some days I could do more, but 30 minutes at least.
This is important -- I didn't give up any favorite foods. In fact, the day I got my cholesterol rechecked, I went into Chicago and stopped at Jimmy's, this place that has an incredible pork chop sandwich that's smothered and buttered. I had one of those, and realized -- whoops, maybe that was not a good idea before my cholesterol test.
But the interesting thing was, I had a 70-point drop in my cholesterol. Imagine how good it would have been if hadn't had that pork chop sandwich! That really reinforced this concept -- that we're so focused on what to give up. My patients say exactly the same thing. They're starving for information on what to add to their diet -- they don't want to give up favorite foods.
So what do you tell people who want to lose weight?
We keep talking about moderation. I don't think people know what moderation is. You can eat foods you really like, but eat them in smaller portions -- don't give them up. Don't even think about doing that! But do add the others in a delicious way.