Of all the habits that bolster or decrease telomere length and therefore health, diet is perhaps the most impactful. What we eat and how often we consume certain foods largely determine telomere effectiveness. Thanks to ample research, it's evident that specific dietary patterns, foods, and nutrients either harm or help telomerase and telomeres.
Allow this article to serve as a comprehensive guide on how to develop an optimal telomere protective diet.
Telomeres and Telomerase Review
Recall that telomeres are similar to the ends of shoelaces, except that they protect chromosomes instead of laces. Telomerase is an enzyme that elongates chromosomes by adding bases onto telomeres. This process creates new biochemical sequences that restore DNA lost during cell division.
Ultimately, cells' ability to divide and regenerate newer and better determines general health. Stagnant cells that do not divide die, increasing the risk for chronic diseases and autoimmune conditions. A decrease in quality of life might follow as well.
Thus, cellular health achieved through optimal telomere exertion is the key to vitality and longevity. And if shortened telomeres lead to poor health, elongated telomeres indicate quite the opposite.
How to Lengthen Telomeres
Indeed, there are various lifestyle choices and tips to lengthen telomeres, although diet appears to play the largest role.
From diet to stress, nearly every environmental factor and lifestyle habit contribute to good versus poor telomere health. As of now, the factors that exert the most negative effect on telomeres include
• High sugar intake
• Highly processed and packaged food intake
• Excessive alcohol consumption
• Unmanaged stress
• Heavy metals
• Poor air quality
• Hormone disruptors found in beauty and household cleaning products
Generally speaking, accomplishing the habits that promote good overall health and avoiding others along with negative environmental factors optimize telomeres. This obviously makes sense, as research shows these telomeres highly impact cellular health which ultimately determines systemic health.
Because diet most directly impacts telomeres, it is helpful to know which specific nutrients bolster most at a cellular level.
Specific Nutrients and Telomeres
Consume plenty of the following nutrients:
These fatty acids are widely recognized for their promising role in heart and brain health. They may also reduce heart disease and Alzheimer's risk, and they are also a mighty anti-inflammatory!
Like vitamin D (as you'll soon learn), omega-3 deficiency is associated with many negative health outcomes. On the other hand, adequacy supports long telomere length.
Interestingly, the same foods that are high in vitamin D are also potent in omega-3 fatty acids. These include fatty fish, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, edamame, algae, and other sea vegetables.
These nutrients are powerful because they fight oxidative damage generally caused by free radicals. Free radicals are highly inflammatory and carcinogenic, so antioxidant adequacy is very important.
Already sprinkled throughout, the best antioxidants and/or antioxidant cofactors include glutathione, carotenoids, C, E, and D, riboflavin, selenium, and zinc. Antioxidants are largely found in fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods. They are also sourced from high-quality animal products like grass-fed meat and wild-caught seafood.
In particular, vitamins B6 (pyridoxine), B12 (cobalamin), and B9 (folate) are essential for the production of healthy DNA, nerves, and blood cells. Thus, they promote brain and nervous system health and boost the immune system.
In addition, these vitamins also help excrete homocysteine, a molecule associated with cardiovascular disease, oxidative stress, inflammation, and metabolic syndrome. On the other hand, B vitamin deficiencies are correlated with reduced telomere length.
Good sources of B6 include brown rice, rice bran, pistachios, fish, turkey, chicken, and sunflower and sesame seeds. Potent sources of folate are dark leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, avocado, Brussel sprouts, and legumes and the highest sources of vitamin B12 are animal products.
Vitamin B12 isn’t present in any plant foods, so vegetarians and especially vegans generally need supplementation.
Acting as an antioxidant, vitamin C helps reduce telomere shortening and combat premature cellular aging. It's also implicated in the prevention of age-related cataracts and aids the immune system.
Common vitamin C sources include bell peppers, broccoli, oranges, and other citrus fruit, peaches, parsley, and cabbage.
More and more research implicates vitamin D in a huge amount of metabolic reactions. Deficiency of vitamin D is associated with many disease states like multiple sclerosis, viral infections, metabolic syndrome, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
While most well-known for its role in bone health and regeneration, higher serum concentrations of vitamin D are linked to increased telomere length. It also enhances telomerase activity, making this vitamin absolutely vital.
Now, sunlight is actually the best, most bioactive and available form of the vitamin. If safe, it is recommended to get at least 10 minutes of sunlight without sunscreen per day.
The only potent food sources of vitamin D are fatty fish like salmon and sardines, egg yolks, and fortified products including cereal, milk, and orange juice. However, it’s still wise to limit the latter three foods, as they may incur more negative consequences than beneficial ones.
Even though vitamin C typically receives more spotlight, vitamin E is actually a more potent antioxidant! In fact, it probably achieves a spot on the top three most impressive antioxidants behind glutathione and the carotenoid astaxanthin.
Interestingly, vitamin E directly impacts antioxidant activity while. Other well-known contributors, like riboflavin and selenium, serve as cofactors to other antioxidant nutrients.
Vitamin E foods are legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and seed oils. Vegetable oils are also high in vitamin E, but their negative properties outweigh their vitamin E content, so choose the other sources more often.
Last but not least, zinc plays a role in cell division and growth, and therefore, telomere length. Specifically, it plays a major role in modulating telomerase in cancer cells.
Impaired zinc utilization and/or deficiency are associated with short telomere length and suboptimal health, especially in older populations.
The best sources of this mineral include grass-fed red meat, hormone, and antibiotic-free poultry, crab and lobster, beans, whole grains, and high-quality dairy products. Zinc is also present in fortified cereals, but it is wise to limit these to one serving every now and then.
Telomere Protective Diet
To summarize, the most telomere protective diet is based on whole, real foods that are antioxidative and anti-inflammatory. They also reduce insulin resistance and include sufficient amounts of the nutrients just discussed.
In terms of food groups, this amounts to:
• Fruits and vegetables (vibrant colors are most antioxidative)
• Lean protein (high-quality poultry, red meat, and wild-caught seafood)
• Healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats from nuts, seeds, and olives)
• High fiber foods (beans and legumes, whole grains, fruits, and veggies)
Creating a dietary pattern where these types of foods comprise a majority of most meals and snacks is the single best way to lengthen telomeres.
One specific diet that naturally includes these dietary properties is the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fatty fish and other omega-3s, beans and legumes, and lean white protein. This highly-touted diet promotes long telomeres and healthy aging according to various studies.
There is not quite enough research to determine which specific dietary components of the Med Diet drive this association. However, it is likely a combination of high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods along with others high in the aforementioned nutrients.
Other diets like the Ketogenic, which limits many healthful fruits and grains, or low-fat diets, that minimize healthy monounsaturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids, do not fare nearly as well.
Furthermore, the worst diet for telomere health is the Standard American Diet (SAD). This eating pattern tends to be high in refined sugar, additives from "diet" foods, processed meats and cheeses, alcohol, and other inflammatory foods. Limit consumption of these foods to maintain happy telomeres.
Kickstart a telomere protective diet with the following recipes:
Greek Stuffed Peppers - offers plenty of vibrant colors, protein-packed quinoa, and additional rich nutrients
Vegetarian Chili - plant-based friendly and high in fiber and lean protein
Black Bean Omelette - high in fiber, lean and bioavailable protein, and antioxidants
The Bottom Line on Increasing Telomere Length with Diet
The nutrients contained in food directly impact the telomeres on the end of chromosomes. Understanding these relationships and how they work can help us humans make wise dietary choices that may result in longer, better-functioning telomeres and cells.
Thanks to an abundance of research, it is clear that beneficial nutrients like vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and phytochemicals bolster telomeres. On the other hand, inflammatory foods - like refined sugar and vegetable oils - diminish telomere health.
Choose mostly real, whole foods vibrant in color and nutrient density to secure optimal vitality and longevity!
Castellani P. 10 Natural Antioxidants to Be Healthy and Beautiful. Published June 15, 2020. https://www.lifegate.com/antioxidant.
Brigham and Women's Hospital Communications. Mediterranean Diet Has Marked Impact on Aging. Harvard Gazette. Published December 2, 2014. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/12/mediterranean-diet-has-marked-impact-on-aging/.
Richling C. Five Foods That Protect Your Telomeres and Extend Your Life. Ornish Lifestyle Medicine. https://www.ornish.com/zine/five-foods-that-protect-telomeres/.