How Long are Your Telomeres, and What are You Eating About It?

Are you shortening your life by the way you eat?

Your DNA contains the instructions necessary to develop and direct the activities of the cells in your body.  The DNA in the nucleus of each cell is packaged into thread-like structures called chromosomes, and the telomeres are protein structures that are found on each end of the chromosomes.  The telomeres play a vital role in preserving the information in our genome, which is our complete set of DNA.

Every time a cell divides, it loses a little bit of its telomere length, so the older you are, the shorter your telomeres are.  There are other things you can do though, that will damage your DNA and speed up how fast your telomeres shorten.  The faster your telomeres shorten, the faster you age and increase your likelihood of disease and early death.  Among other lifestyle factors, what you eat can speed up or slow down the shortening of your telomeres.

Ultra-processed food (UPF) is the packaged, ready-to-eat or microwave junk food like boxed cereals, instant noodles, chicken nuggets, cookies, chips, and sugar-sweetened beverages that many of us eat regularly.  UPF has been shown in many studies to be connected to a higher risk of early death from all causes, especially cancers and heart disease.  Research presented this month at the European and International Conference on Obesity concluded that the more UPF you consume daily, the more likely you are to have shortened telomeres.  They studied almost 900 people and divided them into four groups, depending on how much UPF they consumed daily.  They found that as UPF consumption increased, the likelihood of having shortened telomeres also increased by 29%, 40%, and 82% for the groups that ate 2 to 2.5, 2.5 to 3, and more than 3 servings per day compared to those who ate less than 2 servings of UPF per day.

A 2012 review published by the NIH from Dr. Masood A. Shammas of the Harvard Cancer Institute discussed the lifestyle factors that can speed up the shortening of your telomeres, thus affecting your health and how long you live.  Some of the factors that we control include smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, and eating an unhealthy diet.  In terms of diet, he highlighted the following:

Fat, fiber, and protein:  Dietary intake of fiber is correlated with longer telomeres, while consuming Omega-6 fatty acids like linoleic acid have a negative impact on length.  Reducing your intake of protein seems to increase longevity, and a 40% reduction of protein in the food of rats led to a 15% increase in their lifespan as well as longer telomeres.  This is consistent with the high life expectancy that is seen is Japanese societies that have low protein and high (complex) carbohydrate diets.

Antioxidants:  Diets that are high in antioxidant Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with longer telomeres.  Diets rich in antioxidants like vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta-carotene protect the telomeres from oxidative damage so that they remain longer and lead to a reduced risk of illness like breast cancer.

Dietary restriction:  Eating less has a positive impact on health and longevity, as shown by animal studies where reducing their food intake led to reduced oxidation and DNA damage, longer telomeres, and a lifespan increase of up to 66%.  Dr. Shammas explains that “because oxidative stress can substantially accelerate telomere shortening, the reduction in oxidative stress by dietary restriction is expected to preserve telomeres and other cellular components”.  Whether you choose to participate in intermittent fasting or some other form of dietary restriction, it appears that this could have a positive impact on your health.

Dr. Shammas concludes that to preserve our telomeres, we should “eat less; include antioxidants, fiber, soy protein and healthy fats (derived from avocados, fish, and nuts) in our diet”.  He suggests “foods such as tuna, salmon, herring, mackerel, halibut, anchovies, cat-fish, grouper, flounder, flax seeds, chia seeds, sesame seeds, kiwi, black raspberries, lingonberry, green tea, broccoli, sprouts, red grapes, tomatoes, olive fruit, and other vitamin D-rich and vitamin E-rich foods are a good source of antioxidants.  These combined with a Mediterranean type of diet containing fruits and whole grains would help protect telomeres”.

Perhaps you didn’t wake up this morning wondering how long your telomeres are, but my guess is that you’re always interested in knowing what you can do to improve your length and quality of life.

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