New U.S. research has found that eating a healthy diet that focuses on plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and limits sugar, salt, and processed meats can help promote healthy cellular aging in women and ward off chronic illness.
Carried out by the University of Michigan, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the University of California, U.S.A., along with Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland, the new study looked at how diet could impact cellular aging, which can increase the risk of chronic diseases.
The team analyzed the diets of 4,758 healthy adults aged 20 to 65 years to see how well they scored on four evidence-based diet quality indices, including the Mediterranean diet, the Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension (DASH) diet and two commonly used measures of diet quality developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
To measure cellular aging the researchers looked at telomere length. Telomeres are the protein caps on the ends of human chromosomes that protect DNA and are markers of health.
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Age is the strongest predictor of telomere length — telomeres shorten in length during each cell cycle — but it is unknown which diet pattern is most strongly related to telomere length.
After taking into account sociodemographic and health factors, and comparing the top and bottom quintiles of the diet scores, the researchers found that for women, high scores for each of the four diets were significantly associated with longer telomere length.
However, in men, although the findings showed the same trend, it was not statistically significant.
"We were surprised that the findings were consistent regardless of the diet quality index we used," said lead author Cindy Leung, "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."
"The key takeaway is that following a healthy diet can help us maintain healthy cells and avoid certain chronic diseases," added Leung. "Emphasis should be placed on improving the overall quality of your diet rather than emphasizing individual foods or nutrients."
"Overall, the findings suggest that following these guidelines is associated with longer telomere length and reduces the risk of major chronic disease."
The researchers also commented that further investigation is now needed to understand why the same associations were not observed in men.
"We have seen some gender differences in previous nutrition and telomere studies," said Leung. "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 prior studies."
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