Several decades ago, the popular nutrition writer Adelle Davis said: “You are what you eat!” Her message warned Americans against highly processed foods full of sugar and white flour. As a celebrity of that time, she was one of the first advocates for eating whole foods. In particular, Ms. Davis warned against junk food. The February 2022 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition contains a report of a study showing how right she was. People who consume a diet full of vegetables and fruits, with very little processed food, may be able to age more slowly.
How to Measure If You Could Age More Slowly:
The investigators analyzed data collected as part of the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort, with nearly 2,000 participants (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Feb. 2022). These individuals had completed detailed dietary questionnaires. As part of the study, the researchers scored each person’s diet according to how closely it conformed to Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) recommendations.
In addition, the scientists drew blood samples and analyzed them for three different epigenetic markers of aging. These are areas of our genes that have DNA methylation. Certain patterns of methylation indicate when people will age more slowly. Specifically, previous studies have linked these epigenetic markers to a lower risk of dying prematurely.
How Do DASH Scores Relate to Epigenetic Markers?
People with higher DASH scores had lower levels of each of these aging biomarkers. Perhaps their link with lower mortality helps explain why a healthful diet is associated with a longer life.
Another Study of a DASH Diet Benefit:
First, let’s be clear on what the DASH diet is. This dietary approach involves lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Low-fat dairy products are encouraged, along with fish, poultry, nuts and legumes. Processed foods, especially sweets, fats and red meat are minimized. Such an eating plan results in meals that are high in fiber and low in sugar.
How Does a DASH Diet Affect Cardiac Health?
A study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology demonstrates that the DASH diet can lower cardiac inflammation (JACC, June 1, 2021). The scientists conducted a controlled trial in which they provided meals for the 412 participants. As a result, they had complete control over what people were eating. Half of the volunteers got a DASH diet while the remainder followed a controlled diet. The scientists also varied the sodium levels in the diets to see whether a low-salt diet increased the benefit of following a DASH diet.
How a DASH Diet Affects the Heart and Helps You Age More Slowly:
The results of the study show that a DASH diet can protect the heart in three different ways. The vegetable-heavy diet by itself lowers levels of high-sensitivity cardiac troponin I, which is a measure of cardiac injury. (Elevated levels of troponin may indicate a heart attack, for example.) People following the DASH diet also had lower levels of hs-CRP, an indicator of inflammation. In contrast, the low-sodium diet alone increased hs-CRP modestly.
Combining a DASH approach with sodium limitation also reduced N-terminal pro–B-type natriuretic peptide, a measure the scientists used to indicate cardiac strain. Consequently, it appears that a vegetable-rich DASH diet can protect the heart, especially if it is also low in salt. This should also help most of us age more slowly.
You may wish to listen to our Show 1051: How Do Vegetarians Get All the Nutrients They Need? Another resource is this wonderful recipe for Lentil-Nut Loaf from Harvard’s Dr. Walter Willett and his wife, Gail Pettiford Willett. You will also find a delicious recipe for Lentil and Roasted Bell Pepper Salad, from Dr. Christopher Gardner of Stanford University.