Using food and medicine to defy ageing process9 February 2018
Humankind has sought to defy the ageing process for millennia. Andrew Tunnicliffe asks dietician Kirsty Bamping if food and medicine will ever be able to reduce the effects of time on our bodies.
From creams to serums, diets to pills, supplements to surgery, and a multitude of other products and services, we’re endlessly seeking ways to stay younger for longer. It’s certainly not a new phenomenon; vanity is something we’ve lived with and adapted our lives to for thousands of years. Cleopatra, famously, was said to have bathed in the milk from as many 700 donkeys every day in an effort to retain her allure, while a Spanish expedition in the early 16th century under Juan Ponce de León went in search of the mythical Fountain of Eternal Youth. However, it was the in the 20th century that the major scientific breakthroughs in cosmetics were made.
Today, we are much more conscious of the way we look and how that makes us feel. We are very much aware of the link between a healthy body and mind, but the pursuit of youthfulness continues, despite increasingly being told to love ourselves, blemishes and all.
However, the morning newspapers are littered with celebrity news, stories furnished with stunning pictures of their male and female subjects. TV schedules are littered with documentaries on celebrity makeovers gone awry, while websites are adorned with skyscraper ads urging visitors to marvel at the ravages of time on their heroes and heroines, and there’s no sign of any of this abating.
Research published in Brazil earlier this year revealed that eight in ten women over the age of 55 regularly used some sort of anti-ageing product, with 83% of those asked confirming that beauty was important to them. This is significant, given that the South American country is the world’s fourth-largest personal-care market – including cosmetics and fragrances.
Such significance is compounded by the revelation from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics that a third of the population will be over 60 by the middle of the century, providing bundles of encouragement for an already active industry.
The study, by research group REDS, lifted the lid on some interesting and provocative perceptions. It warned companies looking to profit from this growing market that they had to reinvent their marketing strategies and, more importantly, be mindful of – and even stop using – stereotypes. One of the biggest concerns was the use of the term ‘anti-ageing’.
The proposition seems to be gaining momentum. In April, US beauty title Allure said it was to stop using the term in an effort to change the way we think about ageing. “Whether we know it or not, we’re subtly reinforcing the message that ageing is a condition we need to battle,” wrote Michelle Lee, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. While this is an interesting assertion, many will continue to see ageing as a thing to dread.
Aside from the creams, procedures, medication and natural remedies – rubbing one’s body head to toe with tree sap, say – there is a belief that we are a physical manifestation of our diets. That notion has led many to look for a link between certain foods and slowing down – or even halting – the ageing process. The Brazilian study found that, while many women placed considerable worth on personal-care products, more than half of respondents were aware of the importance of eating well and made conscious efforts to achieve balanced diets.
It’s long been known that certain foods can help reduce the impact of ageing. Those heavy in antioxidants – containing vitamins A, C and E, flavanols, resveratrol and lycopene among thousands of others – are known to offer arguably the best protection. They reduce the damage to cells in the body caused by environments and lifestyles. However, the body’s immune system creates free radicals, a surfeit of which can lead to greater damage, potentially enabling certain diseases to develop and flourish.
Whether young or old, everyone instinctively wishes to stave off illness or decline. “A diet can help keep us healthier for longer, but there aren’t any particular foods that have to be eaten or foods that should be completely avoided in terms of the anti-ageing process,” says dietician Kirsty Bamping. “Of course, certain vitamins and minerals can play an important role, but that is true throughout our life.
“There is evidence from studies that shows following healthy eating guidelines will ensure we get all of our vital nutrients for anti-ageing. However there is only very limited scientific evidence that eating specific foods, or cutting out others, can actually help alleviate the ageing process. The most important food tip is to choose a wide range of foods and food groups. There is not one that can supply all the nutrients our skin and bodies need.”
Bamping’s views might be contradictory to those with vested interests, or contrast with some of the conflicting information that has been fed to the public over the years. Eating too much of one thing is frequently advised against, only for the advice to change, or even be reversed later.
“I think people over-complicate what they read,” says Bamping. “There is also a lot in the media that isn’t necessarily correct, and this means people are in danger of getting the wrong message. As an example, people get fats confused, and don’t understand which are good, or not so good. The media does have some responsibility for this.”
Media involvement does, however, have its benefits. Bamping acknowledges the role it has played, for example, in spreading the message that eating well is important. “I believe people are eating slightly better with the increasing amount of information that’s out there,” she says. “The more healthy diet gets promoted, the more people will listen and make changes.
"Even if it’s swapping the types of fats you use, it may have a positive impact on the likes of cholesterol levels.”
These changes, while good for everyone, regardless of age, won’t necessarily help slow the speed at which your body ages, and neither will anything else. “We are definitely in danger of believing a healthy body can result in a kinder ageing process, and that that is possible with a quick fix,” warns Bamping when asked about medications and supplements. She says that, while there is a place for supplements – for those that don’t receive all the nutrients they need, perhaps due to a medical condition – they won’t necessarily reduce the effects of ageing.
“Food and drink will always be the best way to give our bodies the nutrients we need,” she continues. “There are certain nutrients that are more important for the likes of skin and heart health, but if you are following a varied and balanced diet, there is no need for supplements.”
Her view on medication is similarly linear. “It is about a lifestyle change, rather than thinking a pill will help you lose weight or prevent wrinkles. It’s about making small changes for long-term health benefits. It really is that simple,” she says.
Thankfully, those changes are being made by the consumer, and the food and ingredients industry. “There has been a huge improvement by manufactures,” says Bamping. “Take sugars as an example. Only in the past few years has the industry addressed the amount of sugar in food.
"The traffic-light system on labelling has been a very important development, and manufacturers are taking them into account much more now. They are aware that consumers are noticing them, and this is helping shape the industry and the products being brought to market.”
Live like a Mediterranean
The steps the industry has taken make good sense in terms of health and well-being. They have certainly not been taken to ensure people age less quickly and dramatically. Everyone will benefit from a diet that includes fewer additives, and less sodium, sugars and trans fats.
“A lot of research shows that eating a Mediterranean-style diet is excellent for health,” she says. “It’s rich in fruit and vegetables, oily fish and whole grains, with only modest amounts of meat and dairy. The main fat source is monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, rape seed oils and avocados. It is, in simple terms, a balanced diet, and the culture itself is simple. It’s healthy living.”
Bamping points out that ageing gracefully is not just about what we eat. Other factors need to be considered, such as lifestyle. “Smoking, alcohol consumption, exposure to UV light, a lack of sleep and excessive stress, as well as genetics – perhaps one of the most influential – all contribute,” she says. “It really is the case that a healthy diet helps improve general health and, in turn, can help us age better”.
No single food or food group, diet or diet pill, surgical or cosmetic procedure will eliminate the impact of ageing on our bodies.
“There is always going to be research into what’s going to help reduce our wrinkles,” concludes Bamping. “There will always be people looking into healthier ways of doing things, but I don’t think the general rule – that a healthy and balanced diet can give you everything you need – will change.”
There are ways in which we can give the impression we’re not ageing, but the clock never stops. Leading a healthy lifestyle will always create greater well-being and help with the physical and mental challenges of life and ageing, just don’t expect it to protect those movie-star looks longer than nature will allow.