Nutritional impact on Immunity and Ageing
Lily Bedford reviews the results of some studies that looked into the link between immunity, nutrition, and ageing and the connection between food prices and health.
Performance Coach, Brian Mac, often espouses the importance of a sound nutritional regime comprising healthy sources of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, for optimal sporting performance. A sound and different nutritional regime is vital if we seek to stave off heart disease, Type II diabetes, and inflammation, but did you know that what you eat also affects the way you age?
What we eat
A ground-breaking study published in August 2014, has revealed that what we eat can enhance our immunity and increase the effectiveness of existing immune system therapies. The study was carried out by researchers from University College London, who had previously found that the process of ageing in immune cells (‘T lymphocytes') is set in motion by a molecule called p38MAPK, which stops important functions from occurring within cells.
The researchers noted that this dangerous molecule was activated by low nutrient levels, indicating that sound nutrition can block their destructive effect and boost the functioning of our immune cells—even those which are already showing signs of ageing. The key lies in stimulating the function of the cell's ‘energy house' (the mitochondria) and improving the cell's ability to divide, through a well thought nutritional plan.
Study Leader, Professor Arne Akbar, noted that increased life expectancies are a wakeup call to the need to maintain good health for as long as possible: "Our life expectancy at birth is now twice as long as it was 150 years ago, and our lifespans are on the increase. Health care costs associated with ageing are immense, and there will be an increasing number of older people in our population who will have a lower quality of life due in part to immune decline.
It is therefore essential to understand the reasons why immunity decreases and whether it is possible to counteract some of these changes.” Akbar added that dietary, rather than drug intervention, could be used to build immunity, since “metabolism and senescence (ageing) are two sides of the same coin.”
The Cost of Eating Right
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has revealed that two of the major obstacles to improving nutritional intake are higher costs of commonly consumed foods and limited access to healthy food sources. Although the nutritional intake of Americans has improved overall between the years 2005 and 2010, the nutritional gap between the richest and poorest has doubled. The reasons for this are varied, though they include the cheaper price of convenient foods as compared to healthy ingredients.
Some of the improvements made by wealthier people include a reduction in the consumption of trans fats, a lower intake of beverages sweetened with sugar, and a slightly higher consumption of fruits, nuts, and legumes. The researchers mentioned that “the gap between low and high socioeconomic status widened over time”, from 3.9 points in 1999 to 2000 to 7.8 points from 2009 to 2010.
The study aimed to assess the role played by various programs aimed at improving nutritional intake in the U.S. The reduction in the consumption of trans-fats is thought to be linked to the many public policy efforts made to increase awareness among Americans of the negative effects of these fats.
In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration considered banning trans fats from processed foods. Various public service announcements have likewise stressed the importance of increasing our consumption of fruits and vegetables. However, raising awareness through education may not be enough.
Marlene Schwartz, Director of the Rudd Centre for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, told National Geographic: “Education will only get you so far.” For lasting change, she said, we should work harder on "improving the food supply, so people can eat what is there and not be exposed to so many dangerous things." Healthy food should be more accessible and also more affordable.
The Link between Food Prices and Health
A non-profit organization, Feeding America, surveyed 60,000 people who receive food aid across the country, and discovered that to make food last, some 78.7% of those surveyed purchase cheap, unhealthy food; 56.1% buy food that is past the expiration date; and 40% water down food and drinks.
Researchers found that those who relied on food aid had a much higher rate of diabetes and blood pressure than those who did not.
The findings indicate that consuming a more nutritious diet, thereby staving off premature ageing and other problematic conditions, is a far more complex problem than one which can be solved through public awareness campaigns; while new studies are revealing that organic fruits and vegetables have higher levels of antioxidants and less cadmium (a toxic metal) than non-organic varieties, the increasing nutritional gap between rich and poor is a major stumbling block towards greater general consumption of these and other healthful foods.
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About the Author
Lily Bedford is a freelance writer.