Update on anti-aging diets
What is the best anti-aging diet? I’ve been studying anti-aging science for a while now, and it seems like there is a new anti-aging diet being touted every month. There is no lack of research on dietary strategies for longevity, health and beauty, but with so many books and websites about anti-aging diets, it’s a challenge to figure out which is makes the most sense. Most likely there isn’t a single answer that suits everyone, but there are some common denominators. Here’s my take on what’s hot now in anti-aging nutrition.
First we need to agree on a definition of diet: It’s more than just what we eat and how much. When we eat is important, along with what combinations of foods are consumed together. A diet is more lifestyle than menu. Wine with a meal, for example, has different health effects than without. There is also the question of why: an anti-aging diet isn’t necessarily the same as a weight loss diet, though if it doesn’t help you maintain a healthy weight then it probably isn’t going to work. The diet plans getting the most attention right now are intermittent fasting, the MIND diet, and the Sirt food diet. I’m not giving up on the Red Wine Diet yet either.
The SIRT food diet
Let’s dispense with the “Sirt Food Diet” first. Founded by a pair of “celebrity nutritionists,” it is promoted as a weight loss shortcut though the name of it suggests that it is based on anti-aging science. It’s a good concept, but lacks any supportive published clinical trial data. Sirtuins are enzymes that control key genes involved in aging, and are known to be central for lifespan extension from caloric restriction. The discovery that red wine compound resveratrol is a sirtuin activator garnered a lot of attention a few years ago, and the role of sirtuins in delaying disease and promoting health became a major focus for researchers. Though other dietary Sirtuin-Activating Compounds (STACs) have been identified, it still seems a stretch to base a weight loss/anti-aging diet on this concept alone.
Caloric restriction, as I mentioned, is the only thoroughly proven means of extending lifespan. It takes a fairly severe level of deprivation over a long period of time however, giving rise to the joke that if it doesn’t actually make you live longer, it will at least seem like forever since you had a satisfying meal. If you aren’t willing to go to that extreme, there is an option that is gaining favor among the researchers who know the most about it: Intermittent fasting. This works by triggering some of the metabolic changes of caloric restriction by limiting when you eat instead of what or how much. The idea is to eat within a certain time frame of 6-8 hours within each 24-hour day. Most people do this by skipping breakfast and making sure they don’t eat dinner too late.
(Update October 2020: A recently reported clinical trial comparing IF, also termed "Time Restricted Eating" or TRE to "Conventional Meal Timing" or CMT for weight loss found no meaningful differences between the two approaches. Additionally, there were no significant differences in fat mass or metabolic parameters such as glucose levels or blood lipid profiles. It did appear that subjects in the TRE group had loss of lean muscle mass however, suggesting that this diet may not be ideal for weight loss. Reference: Lowe DA, Wu N, Rohdin-Bibby L, et al. Effects of Time-Restricted Eating on Weight Loss and Other Metabolic Parameters in Women and Men With Overweight and Obesity: The TREAT Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med.)
Is it all in the MIND diet?
There are some controversies with this approach however. For example, we have long been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, according to the vaunted Framingham studies of heart disease risk factors. And the Mediterranean Diet derives from a culture of late evening meals. The Mediterranean Diet remains a mainstay of anti-aging, and since it includes wine, it unites a lot of what is known about nutrition and aging. Enter “The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay” or MIND diet. This adds certain foods associated with brain health, such as green leafy vegetables and berries. Several large studies confirm the benefits of the MIND diet, with around a 20% reduction in risk of developing cognitive impairment compared to the Mediterranean diet alone.
Whatever you call it, any successful anti-aging diet is based on what you already know: In addition to emphasizing foods that might activate your sirtuins, what you don’t eat matters too. Saturated fats, cheese, red meat, fried food and sweets are still not the best things for brain health or long life. At least we still get our glass of wine.