Diet, Aging, and Disease

May 12, 2018 Joe Brady

Scientists have known for a long time that the food that we eat, the calories we burn and the nutrition we get play a crucial role in the relationship between diet, aging, and disease. The relationship between diet and aging is one of the oldest lines of gerontology research. The ancient Taoist alchemists in China have been touting that relationship for the last 5000 years in their quest for immortality. The first western gerontologist to notice the relationship between calories and lifespan was a gerontologist by the name of Aristotle. Aristotle was the first to recognize that the larger an animal is the longer it lives. In modern times this phenomenon is known as specific metabolic rate. What this is basically is that with the exception of a few anaerobic bacteria, all animals get roughly the same number of calories to burn per pound of body weight per lifetime. For example, an elephant that lives 70 years gets in its 70 years roughly the same number of calories that a hummingbird gets that lives seven years, per gram of body weight. The elephant burns those calories very slowly and very efficiently (its size helps with this part). The Hummingbird burns those calories very quickly and inefficiently (size is a disadvantage to them). When the calories are burned up that’s it over and out the animal dies. This is sort of like a candle when the wax is used up the candle goes out. When the wick is trimmed it burns efficiently and lasts longer. When you burn the candle at both ends it dies out sooner and so do we.

Heres how it works

In order to be alive in the first place, we have to burn stuff. We burn calories like a candle burns wax. Whenever you burn anything there is going to be smoke. Smoke consists of bits and pieces of the un-burned material called free radicals, dangerously unstable molecules missing an electron from its outer shell. In the candle you can see the smoke, in cells it is too small to see, yet some smoke is still present. That smoke causes damage, that damage is what we call aging. 

The free radical theory of aging was first proposed in 1955 by Dr. Denham Harman of the University of Nebraska. Living in an ocean of oxygen, life is constantly being attacked by free radicals. By metabolizing oxygen for energy our cells must constantly prevent or fix the damage that they cause. Known as the great white sharks of biochemistry free radicals are what make your car rust, they make fats go rancid and cause a host of aging-related diseases. Free radical damage to DNA causes mutations and left un-repaired can lead to cancer. Free radical damage to arteries causes arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Free radical damage to the liver is known as cirrhosis, to the lungs, emphysema. Free radical damage has been linked to the decline in immune function with age by causing T cell immune failure. 

Fats and Sugar Both Cause Damage

Most free radical damage has been linked to the burning of fats. We also burn sugars leading to another kind of metabolic stress known as glycation damage. When you brown a roast you are creating a chemical reaction with the sugars on the surface of the roast known as the Maillard reaction. The same thing happens in our bodies as a result of burning sugars. The tendons in a teenager are white. After seventy or so years of burning sugars, the tendons in an older adult are as brown as that roast. Glycation damage from the burning of sugars has also been cited as the cause of adult-onset diabetes long considered a disease of accelerated aging. If you live long enough we all get diabetes. These day’s with our highly processed diets people accumulate more damage faster and get diabetes earlier. The free radical theory of aging combined with glycation damage is the closest thing we have to a unified theory of aging. It unifies much of what is known about aging. The genes of aging seem to be genes that regulate the bodies responses to stress including the stress of metabolism. Many of the genes produce enzymes that are antioxidant such as superoxide dismutase whose job it is to mop up free radical damage from superoxide radicals. The SOD 1 gene is the gene regulated by Tom Johnson’s AGE 1 gene and has long been known to be correlated to lifespan in many species. Several other genes in aging also produce antioxidant to help the body mop up free radical damage. 

Antioxidants in the Diet

In addition to the antioxidants, our genes make we are supposed to get a certain amount in our diet. All of the substances known as vitamins and essential minerals are antioxidant or antioxidant co-factors. The free radical theory provides a link between what is known about the genetics of aging and a wealth of public health data on the role of metabolism, diet, and disease. It’s never too late to improve one’s eating habits and physical activity for better health. We see great improvements in older adults who adopt better nutrition. 

Extending Lifespan

In 1935 a Doctor Clive Mckay at Cornell University figured if that’s true, that there is a relationship between calories and lifespan, what would happen if you took rats and from the time they were weaned from their mothers allowed them to eat only half as many calories. Would they live longer? He found out that sure enough when you cut calories in half you double the lifespan. Even exceeding the normal maximum genetic lifespan for that strain of rat. Early researchers figured he was doing something weird to puberty and that increased the lifespan so it would never work in humans. When researchers tried to repeat the experiment using adult animals. it didn’t work, they died of malnutrition. It wasn’t until the nineteen seventies that Dr. Roy Walford at U.C.L.A. and a Dr. Edward Masoro at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center figured that maybe they could do it with adult animals if careful attention was paid to increasing nutrition instead of just reducing calories. Bingo, it worked!  They succeeded in dramatically increasing the life spans of lab rats and more importantly greatly reduced the incidence of disease in all age ranges. The phenomenon is today the gold standard in gerontology research than any other theory of aging must explain it. Since the nineteen-seventies, the phenomenon of caloric restriction also known as a nutrient dense diet has been proven in hundreds of experiments. Including some evidence in humans. The Okinawan diet, the Mediterranean diet and the Ornish diet lend evidence for the value of nutrient-dense diets as well as less restrictive but nutrient dense diets. A nutrient dense diet is one where there is a lot of nutrition for fewer calories. Basically, it’s what your grandmother told you ” eat your veggies”. 

Cut out Half the Fats and Sugars and You Can Live Longer and Healthier

When you look at how diet plays a role in so many diseases it seems that it is related to the fact that diet affects the underlying aging process itself and that it is the underlying aging-related changes that make us more susceptible to If nutrient density is healthier why are typical diets mostly empty calories?. Traditional foods and meals have been handed down from those who worked much harder and burned off many more calories than the average lifestyle today permits. Much of the fat our ancestors added to recipes was not added for flavor. It was added for energy. Taste studies show that half of the fat and sugar in traditional recipes can be removed before any difference in taste can be detected by the average taste bud. Beyond 50% however and the taste of foods does change somewhat. So if at all possible, try not adding any more fat and sugar than you really need. Another good tip for reducing calories while still enjoying yourself is to eat the foods that are good for you first. Snack trays for munching should include lots of healthy snacks. Carrot sticks, celery, peppers and broccoli with a good low-fat dip are a great way to snack instead of filling up on chips and a fatty kind of dip. 


Make it an Adventure in Culinary Alchemy

We can very much reduce the rate of decline we experience by maintaining healthy habits throughout life. Making healthy eating an adventure in trying out new foods. The average Safeway has about 55,000 different foods and most of them healthy. If each time you go shopping you buy one new healthy food to try at the end of a year you have 52 new foods you have tried. Let’s say half of them are awful. Don’t buy those again. But half of the new foods you have tried will be ones you like, buy those again and you just doubled the number of healthy things you eat without having to give up anything.

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