Nutritious diets have a lengthening effect on chromosomal structures called telomeres, which help protect against chronic disease.
Researchers found eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains but limited in sugar and processed meat promoted healthier cellular aging in women. Participants who followed the Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) and similar eating plans also had a reduced risk of chronic diseases.
Findings suggest that following these guidelines is associated with longer telomere length and reduces the risk of major chronic disease.
“The key takeaway is that following a healthy diet can help us maintain healthy cells and avoid certain chronic diseases,” said lead author Cindy Leung, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “Emphasis should be placed on improving the overall quality of your diet rather than emphasizing individual foods or nutrients.”
In the research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the scientists used telomere length to assess cellular aging. Telomeres are structures at the end of chromosomes that protect DNA. The aging process shortens them more than any other factor, but behavioral, psychological and environmental factors have a shortening influence as well. Shorter telomeres are linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
Leung and the research team evaluated the diets of nearly 5,000 healthy adults. They noted the participants’ scores relating to their consumption of four nutritious eating plans, including the MedDiet, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) and two other high-quality diets developed by health experts.
Analysis of the data showed a difference between genders on the effect of healthy diets on telomeres. For women, higher scores on each of the four diets were significantly linked to longer telomere length. While the link was noted in men, it wasn’t statistically significant.
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“We were surprised that the findings were consistent regardless of the diet quality index we used,” said Leung. “All four diets emphasize eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plant-based protein and limiting consumption of sugar, sodium and red and processed meat. Overall, the findings suggest that following these guidelines is associated with longer telomere length and reduces the risk of major chronic disease.”
What could account for the difference between genders? According to Leung, earlier studies show that men tend to have lower diet quality than women, as they consume sugary beverages and processed meats more frequently.
Olive Oil Times spoke with Sara Wilbur of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, a researcher whose work focuses on telomere dynamics. She explained that the relationship between a healthy diet and telomere length is probably tied in with the content of antioxidants and omega‑3 fatty acids.
“Although this is still an area of active research, the relationship is likely linked to oxidative stress. Because oxidative stress has a shortening effect on telomeres, eating foods rich in antioxidants can counter this action, thus helping preserve telomere length. In addition, research shows that diets high in omega‑3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are correlated with telomere lengthening.”