Eating Healthy Becomes Even More Important with Age

The outer signs of aging may include wrinkles, graying and hair loss. You may want to fight any one of these, but keep in mind that this is only the small stuff. Memory loss, decreased brain function and the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer are by far more serious threats that make our natural aging process much more problematic.

Eating for Good Health and Longevity
The ‘Okinawan Diet’ Shows the Way

Countless studies have concluded that the best way to age well is through disease prevention, which can largely be accomplished by a health-promoting lifestyle. Diet and physical exercise are the most important components, followed by staying mentally and socially active, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, avoiding tobacco and alcohol and drug abuse.

As our body ages, it becomes more susceptible on the cellular level to the effects of inflammation. Inflammation is caused by so-called oxidative stress, a condition where molecules, a.k.a. “free radicals,” attack healthy cells and damage them.

The simplest and best way to prevent inflammation is through a diet rich in antioxidants, compounds found in plant-based foods that are believed to have many health benefits, including the slowing of the aging process.

“All foods fit in three categories: Pro-inflammatory, neutral, or anti-inflammatory,” according to Dr. Nicholas Perricone, MD, a dermatologist and best-selling book author. “Age-related changes may be reversed by consuming foods and beverages that are rich in a variety of compounds, including antioxidants. […] On the other hand, foods classified as pro-inflammatory can accelerate aging. Pro-inflammatory foods are those containing large amounts of saturated or trans fatty acids, sugars and starches,” he added.

It is well known that the inhabitants of the islands of Ryukyu, of which Okinawa is the largest, enjoy one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Scientist believe that their unusual longevity is at least in part due to their traditional diet. Obviously, genetic makeup, lifestyle and environmental factors also play a role. Still, the specific dietary choices seem to make a significant difference. Traditional Ryukyuan food is about 20 percent less caloric than typical Japanese food and includes three times as many servings of fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also much lower in fat, sugar and grains. Fish is preferred to other sources of animal protein. Eggs and dairy products are practically excluded.

Not surprisingly, obesity is almost unheard of. Okinawan seniors, many of whom live easily beyond a hundred years, have an average BMI of 20.4. More than specific foods, Okinawans consider calorie density for their meal choices. “Featherweight” foods like fresh fruits, which have the lowest calorie density per gram, can be eaten in reasonable amounts throughout the day, like healthy snacks, if you will. “Lightweight” foods such as green leafy vegetables, beans, legumes, mushrooms and nuts should be consumed in moderation. “Middleweight” foods like fish, lean meats, potatoes and breads need to be monitored for portion sizes. And “heavyweight” foods like poultry and pork are to be eaten only occasionally and then in small amounts.

So, according to the Okinawan diet (if we can call it that), equal attention must be paid to both, the quality and the quantity of the food one consumes. Choosing highly nutritious ingredients and keeping calorie intake low by limiting portion sizes seems to be the right recipe for good health in general and healthy aging in particular.

But more important than longevity is the quality of life these islanders apparently enjoy. Debilitating chronic diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and cancer – all too common in the Western hemisphere – are rare.

Living long may be a deserving goal in itself. Living well for as long as possible is even more desirable. The good news is that you don’t have to move to a remote island to get there.

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