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Maintaining the health of your body on a cellular level takes an orchestration of several lifestyle factors – with diet being one of the most impactful. Why? Because every morsel of food you put into your body becomes a part of the framework of your biology.
This means that the nutrients you eat eventually become the materials that make up your cells, tissues, and organs. With this in mind, choosing foods that nourish and strengthen your cells is one of the cornerstones of longevity. Conversely, filling your plate with foods that sabotage your health can accelerate aging on a cellular level.
In this article, we'll take a look at some of the worst offenders for cellular aging and highlight a few cellular superstars that you can start incorporating more of.
What Is Cellular Aging?
In truth, scientists still aren't exactly sure what causes chronological aging in the body. However, what is understood is that our cells become damaged over time, which leads to an arrest in cell cycle division. When our cells stop dividing, it leads to a progressive deterioration of our organ systems and eventually results in tissue dysfunction (i.e., your organs no longer do what they're supposed to)[*].
While aging is a natural process that everyone experiences, the rate of aging and the amount of cellular damage you experience throughout your life are factors that can be modified with appropriate lifestyle choices. We may not be able to stop aging altogether, but we can certainly slow down the process by mitigating some of the factors that damage our cells.
Inflammation and oxidation are actually quite natural and normal in a healthy body. They arise and resolve as needed, and your body returns to a state of homeostasis. It's only when these two processes get out of control that issues arise.
Now for the real question; how do these processes get out of control?
Oxidative stress happens when the generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) outpaces the antioxidant defense systems in your body. When ROS and antioxidants are in balance, oxidation occurs, and your antioxidants come in to calm it down. When ROS outpace antioxidants, they can continue to proliferate and damage your cells, leading to cellular aging[*].
Your inflammatory process is a vital aspect of your immunity. Without proper inflammatory activity, you would never heal from injury or be able to fight off an infection. However, when inflammation becomes chronic and doesn't resolve, it can be too much of a good thing. Chronic inflammation leads to tissue damage and is at the root of some of the most common diseases we see today, including diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis[*].
Nutrition and Cellular Health
At this point, you're probably wondering where food comes into the picture. Simply put, the foods you choose to consume can either promote inflammation and oxidative stress in your body or provide nourishment to your cells to combat these processes. As previously mentioned, the food you eat becomes the material that makes up your cells, tissues, and organs. Therefore, nourishing foods will create nourished cells.
Foods That Promote Cellular Aging
It's likely not a surprise to anyone that sugar would find its way onto the "avoid" list. While natural sources of sugar like honey, maple syrup, and dates can contribute to a well-balanced diet, the amount of processed sugar that most people consume today is far out of range for what we might consider "balanced."
In an in vitro study, researchers examined the impact of sugar on yeast cells and found that when the cells sensed glucose (sugar), production of ROS increased, along with a simultaneous decrease in oxidative stress resistance – that's a double whammy.
Conversely, when glucose was removed from the cell culture, it increased the cell's resistance to oxidative stress and expanded its lifespan. The takeaway; the presence of sugar directly impacted the cell's ability to fight off damage, while the absence of sugar promoted a longer lifespan[*].
While this experiment was not conducted on human cells, we can extrapolate that our bodies may have a similar mechanism given the similarities between human and yeast cells.
Trans fat has been widely removed from our food supply in the last five years or so, but you can still find sneaky sources of trans fat in some items – mostly highly processed or fried foods.
Trans fat may contribute to cellular aging by modifying the structure and function of the outer membrane of your cells (the lipid bilayer)[*].
Quick cell biology lesson: Every cell in your body is surrounded by a layer of fat called the lipid bilayer. The structure and function of the lipid bilayer is crucial to the overall function of the cell as this is where cell signaling takes place, as well as the removal of toxins, absorption of nutrients, and much more.
The fluidity and function of the lipid bilayer is almost entirely dependent on its composition. The lipid bilayer is strong and resilient when your cells are made of healthy fats coming from natural sources. However, if unhealthy fats sneak their way into the bilayer, it can create disturbance in the flow of nutrients and inhibit proper signaling, resulting in a damaged cell[*].
Trans fats are present in very small amounts in the natural world, but when we consume these fats in larger amounts, it can create chaos in the cell membrane.
Luckily, the FDA banned the use of trans fats several years ago, but certain cooking methods such as high heat cooking with unstable oils (fried foods) can still result in the generation of trans fat[*].
Several studies show that the consumption of processed meats, but not unprocessed meats, can accelerate cellular aging. This is likely due to the fact that processed meat is often made with unhealthy preservatives and cooking processes that may produce carcinogenic by-products.
While the exact mechanism behind processed meat and its detrimental impact on your cells is still not fully understood, research shows that signs of cellular aging increase with increased consumption of these foods[*].
Specifically, the consumption of meat that has been processed, such as bacon, sausage, deli meat, and so on, seems to increase oxidative stress and inflammation in the body[*].
If you're a meat-eater, this doesn't mean that you need to go vegetarian. Unprocessed meat does not have the same impact on cellular aging, so just stick with the fresh meat options.
Foods That Nourish Your Cells
If inflammation and oxidative damage are at the root of accelerated cellular aging, then the key to cellular longevity is to mitigate these processes. Luckily, mother nature provides us with a robust resource of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods.
Generally speaking, research shows that a diet that promotes healthy cellular aging[*]:
- Is rich in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains
- limits the consumption of sugar and processed meat
This certainly leaves a lot of wiggle room, which is a good thing because everybody has their own preferences and unique nutritional needs.
With that being said, here are a handful of superstars that anyone could benefit from:
Broccoli sprouts are rich in an antioxidant compound called sulforaphane. Sulforaphane not only enhances your antioxidant defenses but also helps to reduce inflammation and may even be protective against certain types of cancer.
Although other cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and brussels sprouts also contain sulforaphane, broccoli sprouts are by far the richest source of this nutrient.
One of the primary ways sulforaphane enhances health is by upregulating the antioxidant glutathione, one of the most powerful antioxidant systems in your body[*].
In fact, cell culture studies show that glutathione can influence chronological lifespan, promoting longevity in cell lines[*].
Turmeric is a nutrient-rich spice that's been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. One of the most well-researched benefits of turmeric is its anti-inflammatory activity, which is largely due to the presence of the active compound curcumin[*].
Curcumin not only helps to calm inflammation but is also a powerful inhibitor of ROS.
The deep purples, blues, and reds that you see in berries come from phytonutrients called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are recognized as an important nutrient for longevity due to their antioxidant activity, along with their ability to fight inflammation, improve cognitive function, and support heart health[*].
In fact, research suggests that anthocyanins may be particularly helpful in protecting the cells that line your heart from oxidative damage and cellular aging, as well as mitigating DNA damage via ROS[*][*].
Spirulina is a type of green algae that's rich in phytonutrients that exert both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. What's more, research shows that spirulina may promote a healthy gut microbiome, which is a crucial aspect of overall health and wellbeing[*].
Interestingly, algae is the first known source of macro and micronutrients on earth, which makes it the oldest nutrient source on this planet.
The health and longevity of your cells come down to two things; what they're made of and what types of stressors they're receiving. While stress can come in many forms (physical, chemical, environmental, emotional), the makeup of your cells largely comes down to the nutrients that you feed yourself.
Making a conscious decision to fill your plate with real, whole foods while avoiding excess sugar and processed foods will impact your body all the way down to the cellular level. With that being said, enjoyment of your food is crucial for proper digestion, and restricting foods you love is a dangerous game to play. Therefore, enjoy your treats in moderation while making an effort to shift to higher-quality foods as much as possible.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.