Chromosomes are thread-like structures of DNA that contain all our genetic information. Telomeres are regions of repetitive DNA at the end of chromosomes that protect them from becoming damaged during cell division. Telomeres are like the aglets (tips) on shoelaces that keep them from fraying.
However, telomeres become shorter with each cell division and can reach a point where they are no longer able protect the chromosomes, leaving them open to deterioration. This leads to aging and disease development.
So what can we do to lengthen our telomeres? We do know that stress reduction through meditation can help. We also know that vigorous exercise is protective as well. Marathon runners and triathletes that run 50 miles a week for 35 years have telomeres of individuals half their age.
And what about diet?
It’s absolutely key. And it’s not just about weight loss. Researchers have found that if we eat a typical American diet, it doesn’t matter how small our portions are or how much weight we lose – there does not appear to be much of a benefit for our telomeres.
Telomeres benefit when we eat a plant based diet.
What aspects of a plant-based diet make it so protective? Studies have associated more vegetables and fruit with longer telomeres. Consuming foods naturally high in fiber and vitamins appears to be strongly protective.
Another key may be avoiding saturated fat. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature and comes from animal sources – the marbling in beef, the fat in chicken, butter, cheese, and cream. Turns out swapping just 1% of saturated fat calories in our diet for anything else can add nearly a whole year’s worth of length onto our telomeres.
It’s not clear whether saturated fat per se is the problem or whether it’s just a marker for the increased oxidative stress and inflammation associated with the foods it’s in. However, the saturated fat link helps explain why lifelong low cholesterol levels have been related to longer telomeres.
Yet another reason to eat in a way that lowers cholesterol. It’s not just about the cholesterol number. It’s about telomere length and longevity.
But here’s the best news – it’s never too late. Even individuals with shorter telomeres can benefit from a change in lifestyle. Research has shown that eating more fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds and less meat and having more support from friends and family attenuates the association between shorter telomeres and the ravages of aging.