By Helen Vlassara MD
It is not a new idea that what we eat affects our health. Over the last few decades, hundreds of dietsfrom low-fat to low-carb, from vegan to Paleohave been proposed to increase our well-being. Yet, with all the promises of good health and longer life, the number of degenerative diseases has grown. What have we been missing? The answer may be AGEsadvanced glycation end products. If AGEs are new to you, it makes sense to take a little time to learn about them.
AGEs are compounds that are produced when proteins or certain types of fats (lipids) react with sugars. It all starts when a sugar molecule latches onto a protein or fat in a process known as glycation. The newly glycated compound then goes through a series of changes to ultimately form an advanced glycation end product. In other words, AGEs can be viewed as modified proteins or fats. As such, their structure and function in the body can become altered, and they are no longer “normal.”
While AGEs can be produced inside the body, from our own sugars and proteins or fats, most AGEs come from outside the body, in our foods. And some foods are higher than others in these harmful substances. Beef has the highest levels of AGEs, followed by poultry, pork, and fish. Cheese and fatsespecially animal fats, such as butterare also high in AGEs. The foods lowest in AGEs are the plant foods, including vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes.
While all foods start off containing some AGEs, we cause more AGEs to form when we cook our foods. High-dry heat cooking methods such as those used in grilling, broiling, and roasting causes an especially great rise in AGEs, while moist-heat cooking methods such as steaming, braising, and stewing cause fewer AGEs to form.
It’s important to understand what AGEs are and where they come from because these substances have been found to harm the body in so many ways. For instance, AGEs are seen by the body as “irritants,” so they provoke the immune system, triggering chronic systemic inflammation. This type of inflammation is now known to be an underling cause of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular (heart) disease and dementia. Acting like glue, AGEs bind proteins together in a process known as cross-linking. This explains why joints, muscles, and tendons become stiff as we get older. It also explains the “hardening of the arteries” that comes with age. AGEs also damage the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, promoting the development of diabetes. Put more simply, AGEs have been found to accelerate the aging process, leading to conditions often associated with older age, including heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, kidney disease, dementia, cataracts, and more.
Because most of the AGEs in your body come from the food you eat, you can lower your intake of AGEs to a healthy leveland safeguard your healthby carefully selecting the foods you include in your diet. Be sure to base at least 75 percent of your diet on plant foods. In other words, eat lots of vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruit. Besides being low in AGEs, these foods are packed with important nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and fiber. You can also enjoy higher-AGE foods such as beef, chicken, pork, fish, and cheese, but do your best to limit these foods to about 25 percent of your diet. Also limit (or avoid) snack foods, many of which are processed with high heat to produce a crisp texture. These foodsincluding crackers and chipsare not only high in AGEs but also low in the nutrients needed for good health, so by limiting your intake of processed foods, you’ll be helping your body in a number of ways.
Just as important as choosing low-AGE foods is selecting cooking methods that minimize the formation of additional AGEs. Avoid methods that use high dry-heat, including grilling, roasting, and frying. These techniques can cause AGEs to multiply. Instead, prepare your food using moist low-heat methods such as stewing, braising, steaming, simmering, and poaching. For instance, cooking your meatballs in a pot of simmering marinara sauce will produce fewer AGEs than frying your meatballs in a pool of fat in a hot skillet. Poaching your chicken in a flavorful broth will produce fewer AGEs than roasting it in the oven.
Can you improve your health by eating a low-AGE diet? You absolutely can. Studies in animals and humans indicate that reducing dietary AGEs to a safe level can help to lower chronic inflammation; protect vascular function (blood flow); help maintain normal brain function, including memory; lower the risk of developing diabetes; help prevent kidney disease; help preserve the health of the spine; and enhance health in many other ways. How low do dietary AGEs have to go to protect health? Researchers have found that a safe intake is below 8,000 AGE kilounits per dayabout half of the AGEs found in most adult diets. On a low-AGE diet, improvements can be seen within just a few weeks.
Studies have shown that AGEs are the “missing link” that explains why our modern diet is so strongly associated with a range of chronic diseases. Just as important, they have demonstrated that all of us can live a longer, healthier lifewithout going on a fad diet. Simply by lowering your AGEs, you can make a real and lasting difference in your well-being.
Adapted from Dr. Vlassara’s AGE-less Diet, © 2017 by Helen Vlassara and Sandra Woodruff. Used by permission. Square One Publishers, Inc. www.squareonepublishers.com]
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