By Dr Max Sawaf
Food – once eaten solely as a means of survival – is now deeply ingrained in every aspect of our lives. We eat food for pleasure, for comfort, for reward; in order to socialize; to help us unwind and relax; and so often simply because we are bored.
Now there is no problem with eating for any of those reasons – but there is a problem with the food choices we make, which today tend to be unhealthy ones. It’s actually a bit of a vicious circle: Chemicals and sugars have been added to the majority of the foods you buy in the supermarket, and such additions make you want to eat more and more – well past the point of being hungry. We can also, of course, say that these foods are leading us to eat when we are not even hungry.
If we look at it closely, what is happening is that you are eating for pleasure and comfort and out of boredom, etc because your brain is subconsciously telling you that you can always count on these foods to give you a lift – temporary as it is – as your brain releases those “feel good” dopamine chemicals the second you take a bite of that donut.
If we travel back in time to when our Paleolithic ancestors roamed the earth, we see a very different picture. They were not sitting around chewing on carrots and nuts and seeds and getting that dopamine reaction. But as grains were introduced to our diet 12,000 years back – and as those chemicals and sugars were added in much larger amounts to our foods over the past decades – eating has become an almost perverse affair.
Where am I going with all of this? Well, there is a big price to pay for the way we eat today. While I have covered the health effects extensively in past articles, today I am going to do so from the angle of how foods age us.
It is nutrition after all, and not our actual age, that determines our bodies’ internal chemistry. And this internal chemistry is in turn responsible for the health of virtually every one of our cells – impacting everything from the condition of our hair, skin and internal organs, through to bone health and brain function.
So let’s take a look at three foods that are making us all old – on the inside and the outside – well before our time.
Sugar is the perfect testament to how our eating habits have changed and our bodies are struggling to keep up. The human body evolved with only a very limited ability to break down sugar – which in the past, when we had very little access to it, was not a problem.
Our bodies, however, are simply not fit for purpose when it comes to processing the astronomical amounts of which we consume in the modern age. And I mean it when I say astronomical, with those of us in Dubai consuming a staggering 18 to 25 teaspoons of sugar every single day (for females the body can handle up to six tablespoons a day, and for men up to nine).
And yes we know by now that sugar – and not the cholesterol in our foods – is what causes cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and much more. But what many of us don’t know is that it is sugar consumption that perhaps ages us more than any other bad habit.
This is because of a process known as glycation, whereby sugar in the bloodstream attaches to proteins in order to form harmful new molecules called advanced glycation end products – or, rather appropriately, AGEs – as they are more commonly known.
The more sugar you eat, the more AGEs you develop and the more damage they cause to adjacent proteins such as collagen – the most prevalent protein in the body. Once damaged, collagen becomes dry and brittle which leads to wrinkles and sagging skin.
Finally, there’s more bad news for those of us with a sweet tooth: AGEs also work to deactivate your body’s natural antioxidant enzymes, leaving you more susceptible to the number one cause of skin aging – sun damage.
The best source for facts about sugar are found at www.sugarscience.org, and I encourage you to do some reading there.
Put simply, humans are not designed to eat grains. In fact, for many years – as in hundreds of thousands – we didn’t. The early human hunter-gatherer diet was pure – meats, vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts and eggs. Back then we were eating exactly what our bodies had evolved to process.
Then along came the Agricultural Revolution and the end of our hunter-gatherer ways. Grains were now a part of our daily diet, and guess what? We began to get sick. Yup, those early grain farmers and the people they fed were not as healthy – nor were they living as long – as their hunter-gatherer ancestors.
When we eat grains, our blood glucose levels soar. To counteract this the pancreas releases insulin into the blood stream to help convert this glucose into fuel. However, as our bodies are not equipped to deal with our modern diet, the body often miscalculates and releases too much insulin – which causes an insulin spike. This surge of insulin then causes the blood-sugar level to crash, and as the body is not designed to handle these huge peaks and troughs, over time this response begins to slow in a process called insulin resistance – a precursor to a myriad of age-related diseases including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
On the cognitive side of things it is perhaps even worse. The Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology recently released a report highlighting the connection between insulin resistance and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The paper noted that in the same way type 2 diabetes results from insulin resistance in the muscle, liver, and fat cells, Alzheimer’s is down, in part, to insulin resistance in the brain.
Abundant in fast-food, fried food and processed food, trans fats are your body’s worst nightmare. We don’t need them, and to be frank, we can’t process them.
Like the other food-fiends on this list, trans fats contribute to silent inflammation – the number one cause of most health conditions in the UAE, including heart disease, high blood-pressure, diabetes and cancer.
Inflammation ages the body from the inside by eating away at the telomeres at the end of your chromosomes. In time, this damage causes the chromosome to divide, which shortens the telomere. Not only is telomere length a sign of how old you are, it is also a yardstick for just how well your body is aging. (If you are interested, we do telomere testing as part of our Executive Health Care screening package at Novomed Centers Integrative Medicine.) In simple terms, the shorter the telomere, the less efficient the chromosome; and the less efficient the chromosome, the less able it is to regenerate your vital organs to keep you young and healthy.
Just in case you needed another reason to steer well clear, a recent study by the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine showed men who ate most trans fats performed far worse in cognitive and memory tests than those who didn’t. It would seem that while trans fats may preserve food for longer, when it comes to our bodies, they have quite the opposite effect.
If you’re feeling – or looking – older than your years, look at your diet first. If you are not eating natural foods, then you are doing it wrong. If you are confused about what “a natural way of eating” is, then start by investigating the Paleo approach.
On a final note, back to what I said about eating for pleasure: We do not need to overdo this. When you are feeling hungry, snack on a few carrot sticks and some raw almonds. I agree they do not offer much in the way of taste, but that is also very much the point. If we are looking to satisfy the dopamine centers of our brain, we are eating wrong.