It’s said that you are what you eat, and that’s true to a certain extent, as diet has a profound effect on how our bodies change throughout life. But if you’re an Atkins aficionado, you may want to start eating more bread and pasta. You see, research suggests that carbohydrates could be a key weapon in the fight against aging. In particular, it’s claimed carbs can boost resistance to a common disease that proves especially detrimental to seniors.
Alongside advances in medicine, then, this new dietary discovery could be a game-changer for healthier living. And the findings aren’t only of potential benefit to the elderly, either, as the condition in question also affects younger people on occasion. So, should you make a drastic shift in what you eat? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer may be no.
After all, carbohydrates are found in a wide variety of foods, meaning you may already be on the right path if your diet is relatively healthy. At least, that’s the current theory, according to lab experiments and research into how brains age. Here’s what experts think you should be eating – and why it can help you now in your golden years.
To begin with, it’s important to understand what carbohydrates are. And as many know, carbs are actually among the main groups of food that we should be eating daily. However, some modern dieting trends tend to exclude carbohydrates or label them as being bad for your health – when a number of studies have in fact shown that the opposite is true.
And dietician and nutrition specialist Paige Smathers, who runs the blog Positive Nutrition, confirms as much. “Carbohydrates are macronutrients, meaning they are one of the three main ways the body obtains energy or calories,” she told Live Science in 2017.
Yes, human bodies convert carbs – which are composed of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen – into fuel to power us along. Indeed, they’re among the primary sources in our energy-making process. Alongside fat and protein, carbohydrates are part of a trio of macronutrients that we all need in large quantities. Without these substances, we couldn’t function, although our bodies don’t automatically generate them.
The only way in which humans can obtain macronutrients, then, is by consuming them through food. Fortunately, the cellulose, sugars and starches that populate carbohydrate groups are abundant in commonplace foods. You can find them in fruits and vegetables, for example, as well as in bread, potatoes and even dairy products.
Muscles then convert carbs to energy when we move, although their usefulness runs even deeper than that. “Carbohydrates are important for brain function,” Smathers has explained. In addition, she has claimed, carbs impact upon both memory function and mood. And scientific research from 2017 appears to confirm the nutritionist’s statements.
The findings of these studies were published in the U.S. scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In short, it was discovered that when participants took part in a game measuring fairness, those who had consumed high levels of carbs showed less altruism than their peers who’d eaten lots of protein.
For many people, carbohydrates can fall into one of two camps: good carbs or bad carbs. And deciding which food belongs in which category is far simpler than it sounds. Bad – or “simple” as they are technically known – carbs have a more basic chemical structure, meaning the body processes them a lot more rapidly. They’re found mostly in unhealthy foods such as pastries, sodas and even white bread.
And simple carbohydrates are considered bad for you because they generally don’t contain anything of nutritional value aside from the short boost of energy they provide. Furthermore, the National Institute of Health (NIH) states that consuming these so-called “empty calories” can adversely affect both your weight and blood sugar.
Camp two, meanwhile, houses the good – or “complex” – carbohydrates. While your body still converts these rapidly, their more intricate chemical structures make the process slightly slower. And in turn, these complex carbs yield a much steadier energy release.
Smathers has explained, then, “It’s best to focus on getting primarily complex carbs in your diet, including whole grains and vegetables.” What people typically label as starchy foods – such as potatoes, corn, wholegrain bread, cereal and peas – are considered complex carbs. But why are carbohydrates preferred over proteins? Well, the answer lies in the different ways in which you process these substances.
Your liver transforms the sugar from ingested carbohydrates into glucose and then sends it into your bloodstream for energy production. After that, the body either uses this energy to power your muscles or stores it for future use as glycogen. However, if you consume anything more than around 2,000 calories, any excess carbohydrates will turn into fat.
And if your body doesn’t have enough carbs to function, it looks for an alternative source of energy: protein. Yet while this may sound like a good thing, protein is actually a muscle-building nutrient and so isn’t ideal for conversion in this manner. As a result, then, it overworks another organ – the kidneys, specifically – which causes problems when you need to pass water.
In addition, you can see the benefits of leading a high-carb diet in cultures around the world. Take the people of Okinawa, Japan, for example. Okinawa is the biggest landmass in what are collectively called the Ryukyu Islands. And the location is also renowned for the longevity of its citizens, who often survive well into old age.
Okinawa is what experts refer to as a blue zone. And the life expectancy of the population of a blue zone is significantly longer than any other, with the inhabitants living particularly healthy lives. Research into this phenomenon suggests the secret lies in the food that their citizens are consuming, leading some experts to scrutinize local diets.
In fact, there is now a Western eating plan called the Okinawa diet that aims to replicate the island’s cuisine. While the lifestyles of traditional Okinawans shape their diet, however, the Western version is designed as a weight-loss program. And as you’ve probably guessed, the plan involves a lot of carbs and very little fat or calories.
The Okinawa diet contains very little meat except for some white fish and, very occasionally, pork. Instead, grains and vegetables make up most of the foods. The Okinawan people also ingest a lot of antioxidants in the form of herbs and spices such as turmeric.
However, it’s worth noting some significant differences between traditional Okinawan cuisine and the Western version of the diet. Fruit, for example, is limited on the Japanese island and so isn’t often eaten by locals. In the Western program, though, this is allowed in more frequent doses.
The Okinawa diet eschews cereal because it’s processed, and dairy products aren’t included, either. But whole eating habits are probably only one factor, Okinawa island certainly has an impressively healthy senior community. In fact, the location has the highest concentration of inhabitants aged 100 or over on the planet; illnesses and diseases are rarer there, too.
And back in 2015 New York’s Columbia University performed a study on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Lead author Yian Gu subsequently announced his team’s findings, and they were enlightening to say the least. The resulting data highlighted how what you eat can affect the rate at which your brain ages, for instance.
“These results are exciting, as they raise the possibility that people may potentially prevent brain shrinking and the effects of ageing on the brain simply by following a healthy diet,” Gu told The Guardian. So, what’s special about the Mediterranean diet, and what type of food does it encompass?
Well, much like the Okinawa diet, the Mediterranean one contains lots of vegetables and little red meat. And while fruits, dairy and cereals feature more in Mediterranean cuisine, carbohydrates are still very much the main source of energy.
The news that carbs are actually good for you goes against the preconceptions of some recent diet plans, however. Low carb, high fat (LCHF) eating regimes began in Sweden and then picked up steam in Scandinavia before making their way elsewhere. Officials even allegedly investigated the Swedish doctor Annika Dahlqvist for advising patients to begin LCHF programs.
The inquiry apparently redeemed Dahlqvist’s reputation, though, when it found some merit to her suggestions. And LCHF plans encourage full-fat dairy consumption and animal products over carbohydrate-rich food. So, knowing what we do about the health benefits of carbs, how could LCHF diets be deemed a good alternative? Well, they may be good for diabetes sufferers, for example.
As we’ve seen, when the body digests carbohydrates, it converts them into sugar that flows into the bloodstream. This process in turn generates insulin that helps the body absorb the sugar. As patients with diabetes struggle to generate insulin, however, a low-carb diet may help. That said, the fat content in the LCHF diet may also increase body inflammation in some diabetic patients. And in any case, it’s best to consult with a doctor before changing diet plans.
In addition, research has unearthed further potential pitfalls of the LCHF diet; it could also adversely affect the bacteria in your gut, for instance. By and large, then, the high-carb diet perhaps seems to be a healthier alternative in the long run. What’s more, a study by the University of Sydney has uncovered indications that carbs may even protect the brain from deterioration as time passes.
Basing their research on diets from blue zones, the scientists in the Australian study experimented with carbohydrate-rich foods on mice. While the animals’ fat intake stayed the same, researchers gave the rodents differing quantities of dairy-based proteins and starch-based complex carbohydrates. They they set the mice into a puzzle-laden maze at different life stages to document the results.
And the team, who were led by Professor David le Couteur, discovered that the mice that were fed the least protein but the most carbs retained the best brain activity throughout their lives. It seemed, too, that this was especially true of the females of the species. Coutuer and his researchers then went on to study the brains of the mice in more detail, paying particular attention to the hippocampus.
As you may know, the hippocampus acts as the memory retention center of the brain and governs learning. “The hippocampus is usually the first part of the brain to deteriorate with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s,” Couteur told The Independent. And Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia in the elderly.
Alzheimer’s generally causes gradual but increasing memory loss followed by a slew of symptoms such as disorientation, speech problems and challenging behavior. And while it’s often considered a disease of the elderly, there’s also an early-onset strain of the disease that can strike people in middle age – or, on rare occasions, even earlier.
Much about the causes of Alzheimer’s is still unknown, however, so findings such as those made by Couteur and his team are extremely important. And the mice study indicates that carbs are an essential component to maintaining a healthy brain function. Studies into low-calorie diets have also proven to be significant in the fight against mental deterioration, although the results may not apply to many people.
That’s because some of the most convincing conclusions from the low-calorie studies have been derived from monastic communities, where fasting is a frequent occurrence. And, of course, this level of abstinence is not reflected in most people’s everyday lives. Now, though, it seems like there’s an alternative using a high-carbohydrate diet.
“The low-protein high-carbohydrate diet appeared to promote hippocampus health and biology in the mice – on some measures to an even greater degree than those on the low-calorie diet,” Couteur explained to The Independent. Authored by Devin Wahl, the study was printed in a scientific journal called Cell Reports.
“There are currently no effective pharmaceutical treatments for dementia,” Wahl stated. “We can slow these diseases, but we can’t stop them. So it’s exciting that we are starting to identify diets that are impacting how the brain ages.” He also indicated that finding an alternative to low-calorie diets could raise the standard of living in the elderly for the future.
“It shows a lot of promise that we have been able to replicate the same kind of gene changes in the part of the brain responsible for memory that we also see when we severely restrict calories,” Wahl continued. But why do both low-calorie diets and high-carbohydrate ones help the brain resist Alzheimer’s exactly?
Well, it’s all linked to the FGF-21 hormone that was prevalent in rodents eating the 5 percent protein plan, as this actually decreases the chances of some health problems. Conditions such as diabetes, obesity and even heart disease are less likely where there’s a higher concentration of FGF-21, for example. And this in turn fights Alzheimer’s.
It’s far too early to state conclusively that these diets help in the prevention of dementia, of course. But the head of research of the U.K.’s Alzheimer’s Society, Dr. James Pickett, was nonetheless guardedly optimistic about the findings.
“Although this study looked at brain ageing generally and not dementia specifically, mounting evidence highlights the relationship between lifestyle factors such as diet and dementia risk,” Pickett told The Independent. “So, Alzheimer’s Society is funding a long-term study of 700 people at risk of dementia to better understand these links.”