I’m gazing at a perfectly sweet picture of my granddaughter. All smiles. Face fresh and glowing like a spring flower. Bet she has long telomeres.
Say again? Telomeres are part of the genetic material within our cells that are beginning to give scientists clues to how well we age.
These genetic “caps” on the end of our chromosomes — much like the plastic tips on shoelaces — help keep our strands of DNA from fraying, genetic researchers say.
Telomeres have also been likened to the fuse of a bomb: the longer, the better. Longer telomeres are associated with healthy aging. Shortened telomeres are associated with premature aging and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Fascinating. But what do these genetic markers have to do with nutrition? Perhaps plenty, according to a recent article in Food and Nutrition, a publication of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
When our diets are deficient in certain nutrients, when we are stressed, or resort to tobacco or drug use, telomeres tend to become shorter. And that may cause us to age faster, researchers say.
So while the science is still emerging, here are some habits that may have potential to lengthen our telomeres and ward off premature aging and chronic disease:
Eat a diet rich in plant-based foods. Phytochemicals in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes protect telomeres, scientists say.
Consume nutrients that support “methylation,” a chemical process that supports the health of our genes.
B-vitamins such as folate (found in beans and grains) and vitamin B-12 (found primarily in eggs, milk, meat, fish, and poultry) are nutrients that support this process within the body.
Consume foods that supply antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium. These nutrients protect telomeres from “oxidative stress” and can be found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts.
Eat fish. Seafood supplies omega-3 fats that guard against the cellular “inflammation” associated with shorter telomeres, experts say.
Get adequate amounts of vitamin D. Higher levels of vitamin D have been associated with longer, healthier telomeres, possibly because of its anti-inflammatory effect, researchers say.
Take a daily multivitamin. Especially if your diet is less than ideal.
Spend leisure time being physically active. Exercise lessens the effects of stress, which may also help slow cellular aging.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in California.