What if the fountain of youth were in your own kitchen? While we've come to expect that certain physical and mental changes are an inevitable part of getting older, the fact is that the foods we eat—or don't—may speed those processes along, aging us before our time.
The reason is simple. "We eat too many processed foods," says David Katz, MD, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center. "They're often high in calories and low in nutrients such as vitamin B12 and omega-3s, so we end up with islands of deficiencies in a sea of excess."
These inadequacies can result in symptoms we tend to assume are due to aging, such as the four below. Work with your doctor to determine whether adjusting your diet or adding a supplement can help you look—and feel—younger.
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1. You have less energy
You may need more: Vitamin B12
Found only in foods that are derived from animals, this nutrient helps regulate your metabolism and energy production and is key to maintaining a healthy brain and nervous system. "Fatigue is a classic sign of B12 deficiency, which usually occurs in people who don't eat very much animal protein," says Danine Fruge, MD, associate medical director of the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Miami. Chewing a lot of antacids to relieve heartburn can also lead to B12 deficiency, because antacids interfere with B12 absorption.
How your doctor knows: Your GP will ask about what you eat, whether you're getting enough sleep, and the medications you take. If you don't eat many (or any) meat or dairy foods or take supplements containing B12, you sleep 7 to 8 hours each night, and you're physically active, odds are good that your low energy is due to a B12 deficiency.
Food fix: Have two servings of nonfat dairy foods, such as fat-free milk or nonfat yogurt, and 3 to 4 ounces of lean protein daily. Good sources of B12 include seafood such as fish, clams, oysters, and mussels, as well as lean beef and pork, chicken, and fortified cereal.
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Supplement solution: Take 500 to 1,000 mcg of vitamin B12 in tablet form every day to raise and maintain your B12 levels.
2. Your joints ache
You may need more: Manganese and Copper
Because manganese and copper are both essential for maintaining joint cartilage and flexibility, "in most cases, supplementing these nutrients reverses the joint deterioration and eliminates the pain," says Dale Peterson, MD, director of the Comprehensive Wellness Center in Sapulpa, OK. "The body can actually repair a significant amount of damage if it's given the proper support."
How your doctor knows: Using a simple blood test, your physician can easily determine whether your joint pain is related to garden-variety wear and tear or a more serious inflammatory condition. "If the result is normal, you can be assured that the joint pain isn't caused by serious rheumatic disease," says Dr. Peterson.
Food fix: Nuts, beef, and spinach are good sources of these nutrients, but you won't be able to eat enough to get all your copper and manganese, so opt for a supplement, Dr. Peterson advises.
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Supplement solution: Take 2 mg of copper and 5 mg of manganese each day. Within 2 to 3 months, your joints should feel less painful.
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3. You're more forgetful
You may need more: Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
"These fatty acids are part of the brain's building blocks," explains Andrew Weil, MD, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. "If you're not getting enough in your diet, the architecture of the brain becomes weak, and brain function, including memory, suffers." But it's not only the amount of omega-3s that's important; the balance between omega-3s and omega-6s is equally crucial. "Our diets are flooded with omega-6 fatty acids, mostly from processed foods," says Dr. Weil. "The more omega-6s you eat, the more omega-3s you need to balance your levels. Most of us aren't eating enough omega-3s and are eating too many omega-6s."
How your doctor knows: A quick review of what you eat is all she needs. "If there's no fish, walnuts, or freshly ground flaxseed in your diet, and the fats you eat come mainly from meat, you're not getting any omega-3s," explains Manuel Villacorta, RD, an American Dietetic Association spokesperson in San Francisco.
Food fix: First, reduce the amount of refined and processed foods you eat as much as possible, and cook with olive or canola oil. Then, eat 3 ½ounces of wild salmon and 3 ½ounces of herring, sardines, or halibut each week. Add 2 tablespoons of freshly ground flaxseed to cereal, whole grain side dishes, or shakes daily, and garnish salads or cereal with 1 tablespoon of walnuts 5 days a week. Finally, enjoy 9 to 12 almonds 4 times a week.
Supplement solution: Take at least 2,000 mg of fish oil daily. Look for 1,000 mg capsules of combined docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosaentaenoic acid (EPA).
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4. Your blood pressure is rising
You may need more: Potassium
"Having too little potassium in your diet magnifies the toxic effects of excessive salt intake," Dr. Fruge says. Most processed foods have added sodium but no extra potassium, so if your meals come from boxes, you're likely at risk. Worsening the situation, when your kidneys try to flush out the salt, you lose even more potassium. "The imbalance damages blood vessels, driving up blood pressure," Dr. Fruge notes. "Eating better can correct the problem—I've seen people drop thirty points in three days."
How your doctor knows: A review of your diet reveals all your GP needs to know. If there's any doubt, he can evaluate your cardiovascular function with blood tests to check blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and kidney function, along with stress tests, body-fat measurements, and ultrasounds of your heart and arteries.
Food fix: Cut your sodium consumption to no more than 1,500 mg per day, and eat seven to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
Supplement solution: Potassium supplements can lead to arrhythmia or other cardiac problems, says Danine Fruge, MD. Stick with produce to avoid those side effects.
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