It is no secret that diet plays a huge role in health. We all know we’ve got to eat our greens, get our five a day, drink plenty of water and get enough fibre and vitamins into us if we are to be the best, healthiest versions of ourselves.
But can what we eat actually play a part in how fast we age?
Until recently, there was little in the way of concrete evidence to link people’s overall dietary habits with the elusive secret of remaining youthful as time marches on.
(Personally, I don’t have a Peter Pan complex. I am happy to act and to look my age. I just want to be the best version of what my age is, at any given time. To get the most out of the body I live in, and to be as healthy as I can for as long as I can. Perfectionist, much?!).
But the newly published research on the topic is quite exciting. I think it is, anyway. Here’s a precis.
The bad guy: TMAO
The acronym of the moment, revealed in this research published this year, is TMAO. It stands for Trimethylamine N-oxide, and I’ll be brief and clear about this: it is the enemy of our cells. It’s a ‘metabolic by-product’ produced by the liver when we eat protein (particularly red meat) and not only does it increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke, but high levels of TMAO also accelerate age-related tissue damage.
This is bad news for our arteries and hearts. But also, based on research into mice, it can affect our actual appearance. Mice fed TMAO for several months looked far older than their biological age, and they had cognitive decline, too, which is another vitally important factor to consider in ageing.
We are all living longer than ever before, but what use is that extra life if we are not comfortable, healthy and cogent through as many of those years as possible?
In any case, the science detailing its damage to arteries and blood cells was all I needed to hear to be pretty sure that TMAO is a baddie, and that it should clearly be avoided. But what to do? Can this stuff be neutralised? Is there, in fact, an antidote to TMAO?
The good guy: dimethyl butanol
Turns out that yes, there is. The same scientists (from the University of Colorado Boulder) who discovered TMAO also observed that ageing rodents who consumed a compound called dimethyl butanol had notable upticks in their overall performance and appearance. The age related damage to their blood vessels stopped; and in some cases, it even began to repair itself.
So far, so encouraging. But how does it work in reality?
The recommendation from the study is that a plant-based diet is likely to be key in keeping ageing at bay (and this is clearly why such diets have historically been found in more general research to be successful regimes for health), but there are more specific takeaways. And some of these are a pleasant surprise.
Red wine, for example, is a prime source of dimethyl butanol. So are some olive oils, and also vinegar.
This new research may provide a new and important clue as to why the “Mediterranean diet” (famously loaded with plenty of olive oil, vegetables, a bit of pasta and sloshings of red wine) has been found for so long to be the optimum balanced diet for healthy adults who want to live long lives. It’s positively swimming with dimethyl butanol, basically. Every mouthful is full of TMAO-warriors.
Another good guy: spermidine
The other word on scientists’ lips in recent journal articles about slowing the ageing process is ‘spermidine’. This curiously-named substance is a compound which, when added to the drinking water of lab mice, extended their average lifetimes. (This happened even when they started drinking the enhanced water in midlife. It didn’t have to be a habit that they began whilst young). And where is plenty of spermidine found? In cheese. Cheese. Delicious cheese.
I, for one, could not be happier about this latest burst of colour-supplement pop-scientific knowledge. A salad, full of chunks of the tastiest blue cheese and with a good olive oil and vinegar dressing, washed down with a glass of good Malbec is basically my idea of a dream dinner.
Certainly, making some tweaks to add small quantities of these foods to my regular regime doesn’t feel like a hardship, not in the way that a spin class does, or twenty minutes of HIIT. It’s definitely a prescription I can get on board with.
The four anti-ageing warriors
Turns out that the heroes we need in our lives are plant-based foods, vinegar, cheese, and more red wine. (Those last two within sensible reason, obviously — they’ve got their downsides too).
That’s how, science says, we can stop time. Or slow it down, at least, for the tissue that makes up our arteries and our blood vessels.
And maybe – just maybe – it’ll keep our faces and bodies looking and feeling more youthful, too.