As I suspected, there is no single food that will significantly affect the aging process. But I learned from these experts that an overall healthy dietary pattern — meaning the foods and beverages we eat day after day — really can make a difference in our health as we age. And the same basic dietary pattern is recommended whether you’re interested in preventing cardiovascular issues, cognition problems or wrinkles.
That pattern can be summed up this way: Choose more whole foods (vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and lean proteins) and fewer ultra-processed foods (fast food, soda and sweets). The familiar Mediterranean and DASH diets fit into this pattern. These eating plans work because they are filled with foods that provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and forgo foods that promote inflammation or the cellular damage that accelerates aging.
Years of clinical studies show that these dietary patterns may help protect against cardiovascular disease. In a 2019 review published in the journal Circulation Research, the authors concluded “there is a large, strong, plausible, and consistent body of available prospective evidence to support the benefits of the MedDiet on cardiovascular health.”
But there’s a less well-known plan specifically designed to protect brain health and ward off dementia. A few years ago, researchers at Rush University in Chicago combined the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet to create the MIND diet (an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay).
The MIND diet emphasizes 10 types of “brain-healthy foods,” including berries, leafy greens, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, legumes, fish, poultry and whole grains. The pattern recommends cutting back on cheese, butter, red meat, fried food and sweets. If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty, the plan recommends:
· At least one dark green leafy vegetable each day.
· Berries at least twice a week.
· At least five servings of nuts per week.
· Beans or legumes at least every other day.
· At least three servings of whole grains per day.
· Poultry (not fried) at least twice a week.
· Fish (not fried) at least once a week.
· Limited consumption of cheese, fast foods and fried foods. (Less than once per week.)
· Less than one tablespoon a day of butter. (Use olive oil instead.)
· Sweets or pastries less than five times per week.
· Red meat no more than three meals per week.
· Wine, preferably red. (No more than one glass daily.)
“Studies show that greater adherence to a MIND dietary pattern is associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline and lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” says Xiaoran Liu, an assistant professor at Rush University Medical Center and the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging.
Incredibly, a study by Liu and colleagues found that those closely following the MIND diet had a 53 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Liu explains that the brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage due to its high metabolic activity, but certain nutrients in “brain-healthy foods” can be helpful.
“Many foods that are featured in the MIND diet are high in antioxidant capacities,” Liu says. “For example, green leafy vegetables are rich sources of phylloquinone, lutein and folate, and berries have great phenolic contents. The combination of these nutrients with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects may potentially benefit the brain.”
Another way the foods in the MIND diet might affect cognitive function is through the connection between our digestive system and brain, known as the gut-brain axis. Research has shown that the way food breaks down in the stomach can positively or negatively affect cognition, and a new study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research found that the most beneficial associations for cognition came from — not surprisingly — foods with polyphenol compounds, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
“In our study, we found a protective association between metabolites derived from the consumption of fruit and vegetables, cocoa, coffee and mushrooms,” said Raúl González-Domínguez, associate researcher at the University of Huelva, in Huelva, Spain, and one of the researchers on the study. “In contrast, we observed that metabolites related to unhealthy dietary patterns, including artificial sweeteners and alcohol, showed a deleterious association with cognitive decline.”
Another part of the aging process — loss of muscle mass — can be addressed through diet. The key is to get enough protein. Aim for 20 to 30 grams of protein at every meal, but not from just any source. Focus on fish, poultry, soy, beans, lentils and Greek yogurt. In other words, focus on the proteins in the MIND, DASH or Mediterranean diets, which are low in saturated fat.
“Protein is often not consumed in large enough quantities,” says Heather Keller, a dietitian and professor in the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “Older adults appear to need more high-quality protein in their diet to stimulate muscle development and retention.”
Foods from the Mediterranean and DASH diet patterns can also affect outward signs of aging, such as dry skin, dark spots and wrinkles, according to research. “Dietary patterns can certainly affect overall health and skin health, specifically,” says Vivien Fam, a dietitian and clinical research scientist at Integrative Skin Science and Research in Sacramento and one of the authors of a recently published review on skin health and nutrition in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The results of that review found beneficial effects on skin health from soy, almonds, leafy greens, tomatoes, melon, pomegranate, oranges and grapes, all of which can be part of the MIND, Mediterranean and DASH diets, too.
Fam points to studies that suggest getting 20 percent of one’s calories as almonds (about ½ cup almonds per day) or eating a half-cup of mangos regularly are shown to improve wrinkles in postmenopausal women. But just adding mangoes or almonds to a dietary pattern made up of mostly ultra-processed foods probably won’t make any difference to skin health. So, if you read a glowing review of a random superfood, be skeptical and consider how it fits into your overall diet and lifestyle.
“If it is too good to be true, it is too good to be true,” says Mona Gohara, a dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine. “There is no such thing as a quick fix.”
Excessive sugar intake seems particularly problematic for wrinkles. When we eat excessive amounts of sweets, some of the sugar molecules attach to elastin and collagen proteins in the body, and they form advanced glycation end products (or, appropriately, AGEs), which cause collagen and elastin to weaken, sag and result in wrinkles.
“Doughnuts are not the key to the fountain of youth,” says Gohara, who reminds her patients that a nutritious eating pattern is a lifestyle, not a transient plan that will fix wrinkles in six weeks. “Skin is an organ,” Gohara says. “As such, we should eat for our skin, as we do for our heart and brain.” If you want to protect all three, the Mediterranean, MIND and DASH diets offer a promising place to start.
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By and specializes in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Food to Grow On.”