Most of us have an idea of how to eat well, and that a combination of regular exercise and good foods is the key to a longer lifespans and healthspans. But until recently, no one really understood why good food and exercise has the benefits that it does. That is because we have only just begun to figure out why it is that we age.
It may be one of the most revolutionary shifts in thinking in the history of the human species, but ageing is no longer considered inevitable. Rather, scientists are beginning to look at it as a disease to be treated. David Sinclair, a leading gerontologist at Harvard University, has even said that a “cure” for ageing looks like it might be easier to find than the one for cancer.
In order to understand how longevity dieting works, first we need to understand how the ageing process works:
Why the body ages, and how we can slow and even reverse ageing
Sinclair is also one of the leading proponents of the information theory of ageing, which quite simply states that ageing is down to a loss of information over time.
In the body, our DNA is subjected to both genetic and epigenetic changes and expressions. But the information behind genetic change is in ‘digital’ format (similar to how music is stored on a CD) and the epigenetic information is stored in ‘analog’ format.
Anyone who has a vinyl collection will be able to testify that, although analog vinyls sound superior to CDs, they soon become corrupted and the sound quality quickly deteriorates. On the other hand, digital CDs never seem to waver in quality.
The epigenetic behaviour in the body is like a machine that reads CDs. If the reader gets too damaged, it can no longer read the CD (our genetic information). At a very simplistic level, analog is just not a good long-term way to preserve information, and this is the fault that is thought to currently underpin why it is that we also deteriorate as we get older.
Activating ‘longevity genes’
Fortunately, research has identified seven so-called ‘longevity genes’ (in scientific jargon they are referred to as sirtuins) to fight ageing. Whenever our DNA breaks — and it can break up to 60,000 times a day in each cell — our longevity genes rush to repair the damage. In this sense we can think of them as key healthcare or emergency response workers.
So far, so good. Except that the longevity genes do not seem to do enough to stop the damage entirely, because DNA damage — both organically and from mistakes during replication — makes us age over time.
In order to slow the ageing process even further, we need to do everything we can to help our longevity genes out. To encourage them to put the extra shift in and repair DNA even when they wouldn’t normally do so. To do this we need to put our bodies under a form of mild stress.
How healthy eating triggers our longevity genes
When the body is mildly stressed, it is put in an uncertain situation. This triggers all sorts of survival mechanisms, and sends alarm bells sounding to the longevity genes, and calls them out to repair DNA damage.
We can put the body under mild stress through eating (and not eating) in a variety of ways. A middle-ground between the two is so-called amino fasting. If you eat meat, like most of the population, the chances are you already consume too many amino acids. Meat is amino-rich, much richer than plant-based foods.
But you can get all of your amino acids readily from plants and plant-based foods (including lentils, chickpeas, almonds, etc.). All the amino acids needed for nutrition and health reasons, anyway. A plant-based amino diet can deliver everything you need for health and strength, but a plant-based diet will sharply reduce the amount of amino acids you already probably get from meat consumption. This sharp decline sends the alarm bells ringing. Your body begins to wonder what’s happening, and the longevity genes come out to repair broken DNA.
The beauty of this is that you don’t really have to do anything apart from just eat plant-based foods for a while. You can do this for a few days a week to place your body under a nice, harmless mild stress in order to kickstart your longevity genes. In turn, they will repair DNA and improve cellular function. Do this long enough and it will start to slow down the ageing process in the body.
If food is grown under stressful conditions, it too can activate your longevity genes
This mechanism of mild stress-activating longevity genes seems to be universal in all organisms that senesce (age) — and even fruits and vegetables. In fact, organic fruit and veg is often subjected to more stressful, natural conditions than non-organic produce. When under stress, organic plants release a compound called resveratrol. High concentrations of resveratrol are found in fruits, red wines (a glass of red wine can contain up to 3mg of it alone), and strawberries. Once consumed, resveratrol helps to kickstart longevity genes in the human body. So if you can, opt for organic fruit and vegetables.
The “Rabbit Lunch”
Almost everyone can guess what the ideal eat-well plate looks like. It is often nicknamed the Rabbit Lunch, and consists of approximately 80 per cent fruit and vegetables, with the remaining 20 split between carbs and meats.
Of the vegetables, aim for a rainbow of colours. But it is the blue-purple fruits and vegetables that have the most anti-cell ageing properties. Aubergines, purple cabbage and purple asparagus are all great vegetables to add to one’s dish.
What you eat is, of course, very important. But how often you eat it is just as important.
The importance of fasting
Countless studies have shown fasting to have enormous health benefits on the human body, both mental and physical. Fasting doesn’t have to be permanent or particularly difficult, either. In fact, it can even be convenient (not to mention more affordable, as it entails buying less food).
Here are three popular fasting diets: the 4-8pm diet requires followers to skip breakfast, have a late lunch and an even later breakfast. With the 5:2 diet, followers can eat whatever they like for five days of the week — but for two days they must eat 75 per cent less. The 5:2 diet is particularly good for removing harmful belly fat from the waist. Finally, the Eat Stop Eat diet requires intense fasting for one week of every month.
In the 1990s there was an experiment that involved ‘astronauts’ working and living in a self-contained dome. The experiment was known as the Biosphere Project, and it was carried out to see if humans could live and be self-sufficient in outer space. The experiment failed, but the ‘astronauts’ had essentially fasted throughout the entire two-year process. The result was that — in all of them — blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol had all fallen by at least 20 per cent.
Fasting also reduces resting heart rate and insulin levels. Therefore, it lowers our chances of getting debilitating illnesses in later life. Fasting also, in general, lengthens life expectancy. Mice live around 40 per cent longer, and men and women anywhere between 5 – 20 per cent longer.
Why fasting is so good for the body
Whenever we feel hungry, our body begins to wonder when the next meal will arrive. It then sounds the alarm bells, and our longevity genes hunker down and start repairing our DNA. Note that starving or malnourishing yourself is never good for the body. The key to healthy fasting is to give the body everything it needs, but to leave the body in a state of want as much as possible. This can include having small meals that aren’t filling, or just skipping some meals entirely.
There are plenty of theories about why fasting might be good for the body. One of the most compelling is that fasting is actually ‘normal’. It’s what the body expects. After all, human beings have lived in a precarious meal-to-meal situation for all our history. It is only in the last 100 years that supermarkets and consumerism and mass, cheap food really took off. By always eating when we want to, we never engage with our longevity genes, and so we miss out on crucial DNA repairs, making us age faster.
The key to eating and dieting in order to extend your lifespan — longevity dieting — it is important to put your body under mild stress. Feeling hunger is good. Malnourishment and starvation is obviously very bad. Miss a few meals, and try to limit your meat intake, and you will have a successful longevity diet.