There are so many anti-aging diets on the market today that it's tough to figure out which ones are fads or gimmicks and which ones are safe and effective. Some promise to shave years off your age, while others promise results within as little as two weeks. The best way to determine which anti-aging diet is best for you is to get the straight facts about each diet from the premise to the plan to the "do's and don'ts."
Explore the five popular anti-aging diets, who should try each, and if they really work by getting started with the first diet on the next page.
Age-Free Zone Diet
With a few modifications of his original The Zone diet book, Dr. Barry Sears has come up with an anti-aging diet plan that can help you lose weight. Sears believes that excess amounts of insulin, blood glucose, cortisol, and free radicals are responsible for the aging process, and his plan is designed to reduce and control them via diet and lifestyle.
This Diet Is Best For
People who can't give up or cut back on animal foods, such as meat and chicken, and those who want to cut back on but not severely restrict their carbohydrate intake
Who Should Not Try This Diet
Anyone who needs to watch their protein intake, such as people with kidney problems, should not follow the diet without their doctor's advice.
Although the diet is recommended for people with type 2 diabetes, it is much lower in carbohydrates than what most experts recommend. If you have diabetes, check with your doctor before starting the diet.
Though the diet isn't a weight-loss plan per se, calorie restriction is a critical part of it. That's because Sears believes calorie restriction is a guaranteed anti-aging tool. The Age-Free Zone has a diet and lifestyle pyramid, which includes meditation, moderate exercise, and of course, the Zone diet.
But the real focus here is on cutting calories by reducing total carbohydrate intake and eliminating simple carbohydrates. The point is to control insulin, although the plan covers control of several other hormones, including thyroid, estrogen, progesterone, growth hormone, testosterone, DHEA, and melatonin, all of which lead to accelerated aging and weight gain, according to Sears.
Sears' anti-aging theory claims that calorie restriction not only helps you lose weight but also reduces free radical production and excess blood glucose and insulin levels. All of these can be detrimental to your health. The key to effective calorie restriction, says Sears, is to determine the minimum level of carbohydrate you need to function efficiently.
Sticking to the minimum will allow the body to perform its daily functions without causing overproduction of free radicals, glucose, or insulin. In addition to a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, Sears recommends a wide variety of antioxidant, anti-aging supplements. However, food and exercise are Sears' ultimate "drugs" of choice to control and reduce excess hormone production.
Food on the Age-Free Zone Diet
The diet plan is divided into three meals and two snacks a day. Meals consist of three choices from each group (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) for women and four choices from each group for men. The diet book provides two weeks' worth of menus, as well as several recipes that are incorporated into the sample menus.
A typical day's menus might include soy patties, low-fat cheese, and fruit salad for breakfast; tossed salad with oil and vinegar dressing, turkey breast, reduced-fat cheese, and a pear for lunch; fish, olive oil, tomatoes with Parmesan cheese, green beans, and grapes for dinner; and two snacks during the day. The book also provides brief lists of protein, carbohydrate, fat, and snack choices around which you can plan your meals.
The basic Zone meal guidelines are:
- Always eat within one hour after waking.
- Never let more than five hours go by without eating a Zone meal or snack, whether you are hungry or not.
- Include some protein at every meal and snack.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables, and ease off the bread, pasta, grains, and starches.
- Always eat your snack.
- Drink at least 64 ounces of liquid each day.
- Eat a snack 30 minutes before exercise.
What the Experts Say About the Age-Free Zone Diet
Despite Sears' claim that determining the minimum amount of carbohydrate is key to forestalling aging, he gives no general recommendations for how to determine that intake nor any specifics about how to tailor the diet plan to meet your own needs.
Though much of what Sears says about free radical damage, insulin levels, and calorie restriction is based on research studies, he carries the theory a couple of steps beyond what research has actually shown. He recommends a lot of unnecessary and potentially dangerous combinations of supplements to augment his anti-aging program.
If you follow Sears' diet plan of 1,200 calories a day for women and 1,500 calories a day for men, you should be able to lose weight, but you could fall short on some important nutrients, such as B vitamins and calcium, which are particularly important for the over-50 dieter. However, Sears does recommend vitamin and mineral supplements, including calcium, to make up the difference.
Still, the diet is too high in protein and too low in complex carbohydrates and fiber, which could leave you low on energy and constipated. And while Sears advocates the diet for people with type 2 diabetes, most diabetes experts recommend a diet much higher in carbohydrates than the plan provided in the book.
Calorie quota: Women should consume about 1,200 calories a day; men about 1,500 calories day.
Yes: Calorie restriction; fruits, vegetables, protein at each meal and snack; a limited amount of complex carbohydrates; healthy fats
No: High-carbohydrate foods, high fat foods, processed foods, low-fiber foods
Other similar diets: SugarBusters!; Eat More, Weigh Less; Dr. Atkins' Age Defying Diet Revolution; Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy
In the next section, get the facts about another popular anti-aging diet -- the Eat Right, Live Longer Diet.
Eat Right, Live Longer Diet
This diet book, written by Dr. Neil Barnard, president of the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine, promises to unleash the power of foods to improve your health and delay the aging process. Barnard advocates a low fat vegetarian diet, and he focuses on dietary changes that he says will protect cells from disease, clean the blood, boost immunity, and balance hormones.
A low fat vegetarian diet to boost immunity, balance hormones, and protect cells from damage
This Diet Is Best For
People who have been considering a vegetarian diet and would like to lose weight. It's also best for people who are willing to spend more preparation time in the kitchen. Few allowances are made for convenience foods.
Who Should Not Try This Diet
People who love milk, meat, or cheese or who prefer more information to allow flexibility at mealtime
Weight loss is not the primary goal of Barnard's diet; in fact, only one chapter in the book is actually devoted to it. But when it comes to losing weight, Barnard says that the most powerful weight-control menu is a vegetarian one. If you follow his plan for good eating, he says you can forget diets forever and eat normal portions at every meal.
Barnard's vegetarian diet prescription has a lot to do with maintaining good health and little to do with weight loss. He advocates avoiding meat and dairy because they are loaded with chemicals, hormones, and drugs that can weaken our immune systems and make us sick. He bases his high-carbohydrate diet for weight loss on research showing that calories from carbohydrates are inefficiently converted to fat by the body and, during their conversion to body fat, burn more energy than fat calories.
He also points to research showing that people produce more body heat after a high-carbohydrate meal, indicating that they burn calories faster. He even refers to high-carbohydrate foods as foods with a negative calorie effect. Moreover, he says that foods can have a dramatic effect on hormones, which can affect weight loss and overall health. The goal is to keep hormones from surging. Too much fat in the diet causes hormones to increase, while fiber helps to lower hormone levels.
Eating on the Eat Right, Live Longer Diet
This book contains about 100 pages devoted to recipes, two weeks' worth of menus primarily based on those recipes, shopping tips, and a guide to equipping your kitchen for low fat vegetarian cooking. A typical day might include applesauce muffins, fruit preserves, and an apricot smoothie for breakfast, and curried lentil soup, potatoes, spinach salad, and fruit salad for lunch.
Dinner might include: pasta with broccoli and fresh tomatoes, garlic bread, mixed green salad with fat-free dressing, and fresh apricot crisp for dinner. Barnard pushes a "Zero-A-Day" program for meats and dairy products.
He also encourages eating raw fruits and vegetables to boost the body's production of glutathione, an antioxidant compound that "hauls toxins out of the body." While the diet discourages sugar intake, it does not focus on the glycemic index of foods (the degree to which a food raises blood sugar levels) as many other diets do.
What the Experts Say
The diet is a healthy one, but it would be difficult to follow for people not committed to vegetarianism. The two biggest concerns about people over 50 following this diet, experts say, is the lack of vitamins B12 and D and the mineral calcium. The diet does provide tips for getting B12, aside from a multivitamin, but the need for calcium and vitamin D are seriously downplayed.
Barnard's philosophy is that if you follow this type of diet, you don't need as much calcium to maintain healthy bones because it's lower in calcium-depleting protein. And he says that just a little sun exposure will be enough to trigger vitamin D production in your skin. But that doesn't take into account the fact that your body's ability to produce vitamin D diminishes with age as the requirement for the vitamin goes up.
Overall, this is a healthy vegetarian diet. And if you follow it to the letter, you should lose weight. The diet should also decrease your risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and possibly cancer. However, following it depends on your commitment to giving up meat and dairy and your willingness to spend more money on organic foods and more time in the kitchen.
If you decide to go for it, take a daily multivitamin that contains 100 percent of the Daily Value (DV) of vitamins B12 and D and 1,000 milligrams of supplemental calcium.
Calorie quota: The diet recommends not to drop calorie intake below 10 calories per pound of your ideal weight. For example, if you're aiming for 135 pounds, don't go below 1,350. No other calorie guidelines are provided.
Yes: Lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; organic produce; bottled water
No: Meat, dairy, caffeine, non-organic produce, tap water (because of its chlorine content)
Other similar diets: Eat More, Weigh Less
In the next section, find out if the Stone Age-based Origin Diet is right for you.
The Origin Diet
The Origin Diet: How Eating Like Our Stone Age Ancestors Will Maximize Your Health is based on the idea that we can live longer and healthier lives by more closely approximating the diet and activity level of our Stone Age ancestors.
- Based on what are believed to be the dietary habits of our Stone Age ancestors
- Focuses on unprocessed, whole-grain foods
- Recommends lots of physical activity
This Diet Is Best For
Anyone who is ready and willing to make some major changes in their diet and lifestyle. This diet is one that could benefit all.
Who Should Not Try This Diet
There's no one that the diet is unsafe for, but it can be expensive, so make sure you're willing and able to absorb the additional cost of the food required to stick to the plan. If you can't live without the occasional splurge, then this may not be the diet plan for you.
Middle-age spread, she assures us, is not related to age but to a lack of activity. Moreover, she believes it's possible to stave off the frailties of old age by following the Origin Diet. Specifically, Somer's diet promises to help prevent heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, cataracts, memory loss, and depression while boosting your energy and helping you to lose weight and live longer.
Weight loss is not the focus of the Origin Diet, but it is a side benefit and integral to the life-extending premise of the plan.
There is a valid scientific basis for most of Somer's claims about the Origin Diet. Her diet encourages the consumption of whole, unprocessed foods, which research shows are rich in compounds called phytonutrients that are believed to help fight disease, and foods that are high in fiber, which can help control blood sugar and lower cholesterol.
There's more to her plan than dietary recommendations, however. Somer offers "Five Stone Age Secrets" that will allow us to approximate the healthy lifestyle of our ancestors, one that she says is more genetically appropriate for us. The Origin Diet details how to alter your diet and lifestyle in order to adhere to these five principles. Physical activity is an integral part of the plan.
Eating on the Origin Diet
Though the diet emphasizes what Somer calls "wild," or natural, foods you'll still find healthful canned, frozen, and even some highly processed foods such as fat-free bottled salad dressing on the menus. She offers several sample breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus that can be mixed and matched at the appropriate meals over several days, as well as recipes.
There are no strict food exchanges or diet plans to follow, but she does give some dietary guidelines. These include eating slowly and regularly and each day having six servings of whole grains, two to three servings of calcium-rich foods, three servings of starchy vegetables, and two servings of protein sources that are low in saturated fat.
A typical breakfast might include soy milk, wheat germ, raisins, and chopped walnuts. Lunch might be a chicken breast sandwich on whole-wheat bread, a green salad with fat-free dressing, and nonfat milk. Dinner could include poached salmon with vegetables, a baked potato, broccoli, and nonfat milk.
To cut back on unhealthy fats, she recommends eating only skinless poultry breast, fish, shellfish, and wild game as your meat sources. Somer also advocates grazing -- eating five to six mini-meals throughout the day -- rather than eating three large ones.
What the Experts Say
Though no experts contend that the Origin Diet is unhealthy, some believe that asking people to stick almost completely to unprocessed food and to increase their intake of wild game as a protein source is carrying it a bit too far. However, if it's a plan you think you can stick with (and afford -- game meat can be quite expensive) then it can't do anything but benefit your health and longevity.
Somer's emphasis on physical activity and stress reduction gets her high marks from experts. She offers specific suggestions on how to incorporate regular activity into your daily life and ways to relax and relieve stress.
The diet is generally quite healthy, including lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and soy foods. The only nutrients in which the diet might be deficient are calcium and vitamin D. While the basic guidelines of the diet recommend two to three servings of dairy a day, more than many diet plans, that's not enough to meet the recommended intake of 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams for people 50 and older. The same is true of vitamin D.
Your need for vitamin D increases with age, and again, fortified milk and yogurts are your best sources. If you switch to soy milk from cow's milk, be sure it's fortified with calcium and vitamin D; not all soy milks are. Though this diet doesn't call for calorie counting or food exchanges, chances are you won't eat too much.
The foods included in the diet are mostly unprocessed and high in fiber, so you'll likely feel full faster and be less likely to overeat. Physical activity is as much a part of the Origin Diet as the diet itself.
Calorie quota: The calorie content of food is not emphasized in the Origin Diet. Rather, learning how to choose a wide variety of high-fiber, nutrient-packed foods is the point. Eating more of these foods should make you eat less and ultimately cut calories.
Yes: Whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, wild game meats, olive oil, canola oil
No: Processed, refined foods; saturated fats in meats and whole-fat dairy products; fast food; inactivity
Other similar diets: Eat More, Weight Less; Turn Off the Fat Genes
On the next page, get the scoop on the popular Real Age Diet and determine if this anti-aging diet is right for you.
The RealAge Diet
Dr. Michael Roizen's second youth-enhancing diet book, RealAge: Make Yourself Younger With What You Eat, promises that you can make yourself biologically younger than your chronological age by eating the right foods. He says this isn't a diet book; in fact, he calls it a "non-diet diet."
Instead, it promotes healthy eating, which allows you to lose weight. Together, these two aspects will add not just years but healthy years to your life.
This Diet Is Best For
Those who are very motivated and willing to make some serious changes to improve their health. It's packed with good information about food and nutrition.
Who Should Not Try This Diet
Those whose main motivation is weight loss. It's designed for people who are ready and willing to make permanent changes in their diet and lifestyle in order to extend their healthy years. Weight loss is simply a part of the equation.
The idea is that if you eat the right foods, you can stave off or delay chronic debilitating diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and look and feel younger, longer. Roizen sums up his eating philosophy early on when he says, "Eat nutrient rich, calorie poor, and delicious."
To calculate your "real age" (your biological age not your chronological age), Roizen provides a 20+ page quiz that demonstrates just how many factors comprise a healthful diet as well as the interrelationship between them.
Taking a single supplement or focusing on a single food or food group won't help you lose weight, nor will it help delay aging. Roizen also advocates eating meals in a stress-free and enjoyable environment.
Eating on the Real Age Diet
There are no gimmicks to the RealAge diet -- just principles for healthful eating. Some of the diet basics that Roizen says will add years to your life include avoiding red meat, saturated fats, trans fats, simple sugars, and empty calories.
Overall, RealAge dieters are encouraged to avoid foods with a high glycemic index (foods that cause a sudden surge in insulin levels). Some believe high glycemic-index foods cause weight gain. Roizen provides about 20 recipes and 2 weeks' worth of sample menus.
A typical day may include kashi, blueberries, soy milk, and orange juice for breakfast; soy nut butter and whole-fruit spread on whole-wheat bread, a plum, and soy milk for lunch; a salad with avocado, canned tuna, and nuts with olive oil dressing, whole-grain crackers, and a glass of red wine for dinner; strawberries dipped in a little dark chocolate for dessert; and a whole-wheat pretzel with mustard for a snack.
While the recipes and menus provide a basis for altering your diet, there is no system for creating your own RealAge diet. That is up to you. Altogether, Roizen points out 127 factors that affect the rate of aging; 25 of them have to do with exercise and diet, and he outlines what to do and what to avoid to work these factors to your favor.
What the Experts Say
Roizen's diet is a healthful one that promises to boost your intake of phytochemicals, natural disease-preventing compounds found in plant foods. Research clearly shows that such a diet should reduce your risk of developing several chronic and sometimes deadly diseases.
It's doubtful, however, that Roizen has perfected the formula for calculating exactly how many extra years you can expect to live by changing your diet, as he implies with his detailed questionnaire and complex scoring system.
He says, for example, that eating foods rich in flavonoids (a phytochemical), such as apples, onions, broccoli, garlic, chocolate, or grapes, will make your RealAge exactly 3.2 years younger. Roizen says that every recommendation made in the book is backed up by scientific evidence.
However, there's no research that backs up his very specific calculations of how many years you will add or take away from your life, depending on how you eat or live your life.
However, the questionnaire does drive home the point that you may extend your life and your healthy years by making some serious changes in how and what you eat.
There's little to fault with Roizen's diet. It's chock-full of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. While the diet is quite nutritious, it responsibly recommends taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement that does not contain excessive amounts of any one nutrient as a sort of nutritional insurance policy.
Also to his credit, Roizen devotes an entire chapter to exercise and your activity level -- and how often you exercise also figures into the RealAge formula.
The book devotes quite a bit of attention to two nutrients that are especially important as you age -- vitamin D and calcium. He even goes so far as to say that vitamin D may be one of the most important vitamins in your age-reduction plan.
Calorie quota: Roizen doesn't emphasize counting calories, but he does provide calorie counts and serving sizes for a few basic foods. He also provides a standard chart of calorie needs by height, activity level, and weight along with a chart showing the number of calories burned during various physical activities.
Yes: Low glycemic-index foods, fruits and vegetables, relaxed atmosphere while eating, a balanced multivitamin
No: High glycemic-index foods, foods high in trans fats
Other similar diets: The Origin Diet; Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy
In our final section, learn about the Schwarzbein Principle and why it may not be the healthiest diet for you.
The Schwarzbein Principle
As suggested by the subtitle, The Truth About Weight Loss, Health and Aging, this book is about adjusting your diet to curb disease, turn back the biological clock, and lose weight.
This Diet Is Best For
Who Should Not Try This Diet
Everyone should avoid this one
Endocrinologist Diana Schwarzbein offers her own version of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that she says will help control insulin. High insulin levels, the result of a high-carbohydrate, low fat diet, are responsible for a wide variety of ills, accelerate the aging process, turn off your metabolism, and cause weight gain, food cravings, depression, and mood swings, according to Schwarzbein.
Instead of using a food pyramid model, she has developed a food box representing four food groups -- proteins, fats, nonstarchy vegetables, and carbohydrates -- which need to be eaten together in the proper amounts to balance the body's hormone systems.
Sugar, says Schwarzbein, is addictive. To complement her diet plan, she recommends a variety of supplements, including a multivitamin, magnesium, calcium, 5-hydroxytryptophan, and essential fatty acids.
The basic principle behind Schwarzbein's "healing" diet plan is using a diet that's high in protein and healthy fats and low in carbohydrates to control insulin and glucagon levels. Glucagon is a hormone that causes blood sugar to rise, and insulin is a hormone that brings blood sugar levels back down. She says that you can balance and control hormones in the body that affect food cravings and metabolism by eating right.
You can lower insulin levels by exercising and eating "good" oils and fats and fiber. Levels of serotonin (a chemical produced by the body that regulates nerve impulses in the brain) can be regulated by avoiding alcohol, caffeine, refined carbohydrates, chocolate, and sugar. The result, she says, is reduced cravings.
Carbohydrate calories are limited because she believes that it's impossible to overeat protein and "good" fats. Only carbohydrates cause insulin levels to rise too much, which triggers weight gain. Sugar is blamed for interfering with the body's use of nutrients and keeping insulin levels high.
Eating on the Schwarzbein Principle Diet
The diet provides four weeks' worth of sample menus for the "healing program," which Schwarzbein says reverses insulin resistance and repairs your metabolism. She also provides four weeks' worth of menus and recipes for vegetarians.
The menus are designed to keep your insulin-to-glucagon ratio and your glycemic index balanced by providing only 15 grams of carbohydrates per meal and by including foods from the four designated food groups in the proper proportions.
A typical day's menu might include scrambled eggs and sausage, oatmeal with butter and cream, and sliced tomatoes for breakfast; cobb salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing and an apple for lunch; and roast pork loin, brown rice with butter, asparagus with butter, and a mixed-greens salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing for dinner.
Two snacks are allowed, one of sunflower seeds and another of almonds and string cheese.
What the Experts Say
The Schwarzbein Principle is basically a variation on several other high-protein, low-carb diets. If weight loss results it's due to a reduced calorie intake, not a dietary manipulation of hormones. Carbohydrate intake is so restricted that it could be energy draining.
And the levels of cholesterol and saturated fat in the diet far exceed what almost all experts recommend for a heart-healthy diet. There is no proof, say experts, that following this diet will exert some sort of hormonal control over your body that will speed weight loss and ultimately slow the aging process.
Whether or not weight loss would actually result is unclear from the menu plans, since recommended serving sizes for many foods, including high-calorie foods, are not provided. Despite what Schwarzbein says about not focusing on calorie counts, if you eat too many calories, you'll gain weight.
With the menus provided and the limited information on portion sizes, it would be easy to actually gain weight on this diet. Don't expect to lose weight fast, even if you're keeping your total calorie intake in check. Because of the limitations placed on several nutrient-rich foods, the diet could easily fall short of several nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, folic acid, and fiber.
Calorie quota: No calorie counts are provided and limited information is given about serving sizes, making it difficult to estimate what your actual calorie intake would be.
Yes: High-protein, high fat foods; limited amounts of whole grains and starchy vegetables; hormone-free, antibiotic-free, range-fed meat and poultry
No: Refined man-made carbohydrates, foods with a high glycemic index (foods that raise blood sugar levels the most), most vegetable oils, processed or high-sodium sausages, processed foods that contain hydrogenated fats
Other similar diets: Dr. Atkins' Age-Defying Diet, The Age-Free Zone
Densie Webb, Ph.D., R.D. is the author of seven books, including Foods for Better Health, The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!, and Super Nutrition After 50. Webb also writes about health and nutrition for numerous magazines, including Family Circle, Fitness, Parade, Men's Fitness, and Redbook. She is a regular columnist for Woman's Day and Prevention magazines, a contributing writer for The New York Times, the associate editor of Environmental Nutrition newsletter, and a writer for the American Botanical Council.
Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D. is a nutrition consultant and writer. She is the author or co-author of five books, including Super Nutrition After 50 and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. Ward is a contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition newsletter and a contributing writer for WebMD.com. She also writes for publications such as Parenting magazine and The Boston Globe.