Healthful Diet Linked to Healthy Cellular Aging in Women

Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in added sugars, sodium, and processed meats could help promote healthy cellular aging in women, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

"The key takeaway is that following a healthful diet can help us maintain healthy cells and avoid certain chronic diseases," says lead author Cindy Leung, ScD, MPH, an 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 study, researchers used telomere length to measure cellular aging. Telomeres are DNA-protein structures located on the ends of chromosomes that promote stability and protect DNA. Age is the strongest predictor of telomere length; telomeres shorten in length during each cell cycle.

However, recent studies have shown that telomeres also can be shortened due to behavioral, environmental, and psychological factors. Shorter telomeres have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.

Leung and colleagues examined the diets of a nationally representative sample of nearly 5,000 healthy adults and how well they scored on four evidence-based diet quality indices, including the Mediterranean diet, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, and two commonly used measures of diet quality developed by the USDA and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

For women, higher scores on each of the indices were significantly associated with longer telomere length.

"We were surprised that the findings were consistent regardless of the diet quality index we used," Leung says. "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."

Coauthor Elissa Epel, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, says "The commonality to all of the healthful diet patterns is that they're antioxidant and anti-inflammatory diets. They create a biochemical environment favorable to telomeres."

In men, the findings were in the same direction, but not statistically significant.
"We have seen some gender differences in previous nutrition and telomere studies," Leung says. "In our study, as well as in previous studies, men tended to have lower diet quality scores than women. Men also had higher intakes of sugary beverages and processed meats, both of which have been associated with shorter telomeres in previous studies.

"It's possible that not all foods affect telomere length equally and you need higher amounts of protective foods in order to negate the harmful effects of others. However, more research is needed to explore this further."

— Source: University of Michigan